So Madam Secretary Isn’t "Realistic" About Washington. Who Cares!
May 18, 2016 - accent chair
The Oval Office has a afternoon off. Its storied furnishings—the Resolute Desk, a presidential chair, those Romulus and Remus sofas—are all tucked underneath cosmetic sheeting to keep all primitive until POTUS’s subsequent crisis.
Right now, a world’s many distinguished workplace looks suddenly like a moribund salon in Queens.
That’s some-more or reduction a case. In a frowsy crag of Long Island City, executive author Lori McCreary is display me around a congested soundstage that’s home to CBS’s Madam Secretary, starring Téa Leoni as a President’s warn collect to run Foggy Bottom after her predecessor’s unlikely genocide in a craft crash. I’m here to see how a party biz constructs a chronicle of Washington. Wryly, McCreary confides that she infrequently looks during primary time’s other feign Oval Offices and wonders where they got their curtains.
Unless you’re a kind of puritan who watches customarily wire news, we know she’s got copiousness of foe to check out. Whether they’re satiric, sensationally soapy, or gleefully Machiavellian, inside-dish looks during DC energy players are in practice on TV as never before. What sets Madam Secretary detached from Veep and Scandal and House of Cards is that, comparatively speaking, it’s a aspiring one. Instead of egging on a assembly to crow during a capital’s Monster Mash, McCreary and her conspirator wish to “shine a light” on a eminent side of open use around Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord and her husband, Henry—people who aren’t gargoyles like HoC’s Frank and Claire Underwood, people whose private emotions and bland concerns viewers from Oshkosh to Biloxi can code with.
This creates sense, given a show’s provenance. A lively, shrewd lady in her early fifties who warranted a 1984 computer-science grade during UCLA, McCreary runs a humbly named Revelations Entertainment, actor Morgan Freeman’s prolongation company—and Freeman, unnecessary to say, favors uplift, not alienation. “It’s a instinct to do something that inspires people to their improved selves,” McCreary tells me.
That commendable thought doesn’t make Madam Secretary any reduction preposterous, generally to an aged State Department brat like me. The quibbles start with Leoni’s hairstyle, given no Secretary of State would risk looking that girly. Then there are all those quickly resolved general high jinks week in and week out, so distinct a Foggy Bottom grind. Funniest of all is what we call a Star Trek effect, given McCord is presumably overseeing a bureaucracy whose distance dwarfs a Enterprise organisation and nonetheless a same half dozen subordinates soak adult many of a shade time.
Such gripes put me precisely in a good Washington tradition of promotion a trust of a genuine thing by awaiting error with all TV shows and cinema wreck about life here. Even so, my camber is we’re some-more responsive than we let on that a grousing doesn’t have beans to do with either they attain as entertainment—which is, after all, a point. Madam Secretary was Sunday night’s top-rated scripted promote final season, that means they contingency be doing something right. That roughly positively includes a things Washingtonians consider they do wrong.
• • •
Verisimilitude can be a vision of small minds.
I’ve spent adequate time in LA to know that a people who make these shows are mostly conjunction reticent nor ignorant. They’ve customarily got other priorities besides despotic accuracy. So we got extraordinary about a process—not customarily a artistic choices concerned yet a unsentimental side of contriving a town’s feign TV doppelgängers.
I theory it’s a DC clamp always to wish to find out how a sausage gets made. That’s how I’ve finished adult in Queens, examination Leoni film a stage with Tim Daly (as a Secretary’s husband), Keith Carradine (as a President), and Željko Ivanek (as a White House arch of staff). Or arrange of watching, as a actors and camera organisation are isolated in another room. Everyone else—including a episode’s director, a writer, McCreary, and me—is hunched in front of a contingent of monitors in a mockup White House mezzanine subsequent door, eavesdropped on by a happy bust of FDR that looks many some-more slipshod in genuine life.
The categorical reason Madam Secretary is filmed in New York is that Leoni wouldn’t have sealed on otherwise. Only pieces of a commander were shot in Washington, something McCreary says they wish to reprise down a road: “Hopefully third season, we’ll have a bucks to do that.” Back when Madam Secretary’s continuance was anybody’s guess, a prolongation designers finished do with a Waldorf Astoria as a surrogate for DC’s architectural pomp. But that altered once a uncover got renewed for a second deteriorate it’s cruising by now. Domestic scenes are shot on Soundstage G, as in “Georgetown”; on this day, we’re on Soundstage F, as in “Federal.”
The State Department sets are in nonetheless another stable about 5 mins away, and scarcely all else—the unfamiliar locales included—is impersonated by look-alike pieces of a Big Apple, from a McCords’ Georgetown nabe (really Brooklyn’s Park Slope) to Cuba (Far Rockaway, trust it or not). As all a essay and postproduction are finished on a West Coast, that creates for a whole lot of—gee, should we call it convey diplomacy?—between New York and LA.
Daly needs several passes to spike his pivotal line. “She wasn’t one of Jibral Disah’s existent wives,” he says over and over. “She was his new bride.” But nobody calls “Cut!” when he or someone else falters. The actors customarily collect adult where they left off while a cameras keep running. This is, after all, old-school network TV—with customarily 8 days to glow any partial and 23 episodes to holder out this season. The atmosphere of tranquil promptness as a winter afternoon wanes creates achieving soundness a luxury.
Curiously, that’s a feeling that any White House factotum or stressed DoD array cruncher can substantially recognize. As Daly says, “She was his new bride,” one final time and we conduct for a exit, a divergences between TV’s Washington and a genuine essay are starting to seem beside a point. What’s truly striking—well, droll, anyhow—is a similarities behind a scenes: a total faith and calculation, a mixed cooks and bailiwicks, a gaps between eminent conceptualizing and harried execution. If Madam Secretary has a obscure explain to authenticity, it’s that a approach a uncover is put together so uncannily mimics a concurrently official and extemporized supervision feel it’s about.
• • •
Cut to Randy Newman singing “I Love L.A.”
On a other side of a continent, in Madam Secretary’s wing of a Santa Monica media trickery that also houses Fargo’s mind trust, a half dozen or so of a show’s writers are congregating for their daily plan event in what a poster tells me is jokily called—c’mon, one guess—the Situation Room. Only a California object flooding a windows mars a likeness to a clones in Queens and Washington.
The writers are watchful for their boss, maestro TV writer/producer Barbara Hall—Madam Secretary’s Madam Secretary, we could say. In fact, a uncover began with a “tiny spark” of an thought McCreary had after examination Hillary Clinton during a 2012 Benghazi hearings: “I consternation what she’s going to go home and contend to Bill,” she pronounced to herself. Hence Madam Secretary’s twin importance on a heroine’s high-octane pursuit and her life with Henry McCord and their 3 kids. But Hall was a attention pro brought on to spin McCreary’s doubt into character-driven drama, and that’s why, in a uncanny manners of Hollywood, she gets a “created by” credit.
Inventive family fare, not in-your-face provocation, has always been Hall’s turf, and performing general family was a new charge for her. But she knows a lot about being a lady in a man’s world, that is a aspect of Elizabeth McCord’s conditions that transplants her and McCreary’s possess knowledge to Washington. Says Hall: “Being in a position that’s customarily hold by group can be a same in each industry.”
As it happens, Hall is someone I’ve famous off and on given she was a 24-year-old Los Angeles newbie essay jokes for Newhart. Back then, she was silly and laughed a lot and—well, she still laughs a lot, yet 30-odd years in a business can supplement a satisfactory volume of cleverness and resilience to somebody’s face. Because she’s an aged palm during crafting enchanting network TV, I’m not astounded to hear that, like Leoni, she had one condition for entrance aboard: It can’t be Hillary, she told her impending partners firmly. And indeed, Elizabeth McCord isn’t, not slightest given her husband—a associate college prof until a presidential summons uproots them both—most unequivocally is not Bill.
Even yet everybody we ask denies seeing a similarity, a stage around a writers’ list substantially duplicates Elizabeth McCord’s sessions with her staff. They all lay around a room pitching ideas for Hall’s approval, and afterwards one of them retreats to his or her laptop to write a stage about a heroine’s wonky seventh-floor organisation pitching ideas for her approval. Once Hall takes her chair during a table’s distant end, she doesn’t import in that often. But she frequency needs to, given everything’s presented for her benefit. A courteous associate named David Grae, who got his start essay for Hall’s Joan of Arcadia, briefs her on a latest modifications of a stream script, that involves a Pakistani nuke being ecstatic when it strays into India and Elizabeth McCord carrying to placate both countries before all ruin breaks loose. “Elizabeth is pitching that they can use this as an event to work together,” Grae explains.
Then everybody chips in to work out a premise’s complications: India’s moves, Pakistan’s countermoves, a US involvement. The whiteboard anatomizing a episode’s teaser, act one, act two, and so on is a timberland of migraine-inducing squiggles when Grae abruptly asks a room, “Does anybody unequivocally consider that this is how they’d do it?”
But so distant as we can tell, a routine is too distant along for a doubt to be some-more than rhetorical. Instead, given “within a area of possibility” is Madam Secretary’s mantra, Grae gets extraordinary about American troops capabilities on a Indian subcontinent: “We have a bottom in Pakistan, don’t we? We have one in India, we think.”
Somebody Googles to check. “We have a large aged bottom in a Indian Ocean. But it’s, um, kind of distant divided from India.”
Hall speaks adult for a initial time. “I’m disturbed that she’s customarily articulate to India,” she says, definition McCord—and also sounding not totally distinct her. “She’s not articulate to Pakistan.”
Quickly, Grae agrees: “I consider somebody has to be articulate to Pakistan.”
“Are we during a same time handling a universe response to this? Is she? we don’t wish this to feel like it’s function in a vacuum,” Hall says. “Or—there’s no approach to keep it quiet, right?”
“I don’t consider India would have any reason to. We can curtsy to a thought a universe is watching.” Grae turns jocular: “ ‘Yeah, thanks. We’re operative on it. Thanks for your input. Au revoir!’ ”
“Okay, yet we consider a act-one kicker is too many like a one in a teaser,” another author interjects.
“No,” says Grae. “That was a ‘what a hell?’ moment. This is a ‘holy f—!’ moment.” Joe Biden couldn’t have put it better.
• • •
It’s customarily when everybody breaks for lunch that we learn that during slightest a integrate of a people concerned in Madam Secretary used to play a “what TV gets wrong about Washington” diversion from a other side of a fence.
Writers Alex Cooley and Alex Maggio are both Washington refugees themselves, undermining my contented theory that nothing of Hall’s organisation would know a confidence clearway from a selling banking in genuine life.
Fresh out of college, Maggio worked as a Defense Intelligence Agency researcher in Anacostia while honing his destiny Jeopardy! skills personification bar trivia in DC saloons. (He was a three-time champ in 2015.) Frustration with his job’s minimal impact pushed him west to get a playwriting master’s grade during UCLA instead, and he’s substantially customarily half joking—if that—when he calls his Madam Secretary gig a approach of atoning for withdrawal supervision service.
“If we can’t work with a people who offer a nation in genuine life, a slightest we can do is compensate them loyalty in fiction,” Maggio tells me after by e-mail. Over lunch, he’s some-more bumptious: “The biggest disproportion between what we do and a genuine thing is that a genuine thing is a lot some-more boring.”
I used to be one of those people.
The other Alex turns out to be a member of my possess tribe: someone who spent time as partial of a State Department’s good superpower diaspora. The daughter of Foreign Service officer Alford Cooley, she grew adult partly in Zurich—“It reminded me of Playmobil, solely there weren’t animals pushing a glow trucks”—and partly in McLean. As a child, she designed on apropos an FSO herself, yet a army during a Harvard Lampoon lured her initial to Vice repository and then, during age 25, The Colbert Report.
“I used to be one of those people,” Cooley tells me when we move adult how District lifers adore to argue with La La Land’s depictions of them. She can still sympathize, too: “They’re unequivocally doing this work, and if we see it arrange of glamorized or glossed over, we consider we can feel a small galled. But we’re not there to uncover a mundanity of reality—that’s not since we watch TV. The purpose of play is some-more to simulate a romantic truths, and we consider we do a good pursuit of that.”
Even so, Hall’s viewpoint on Washington is a wilful one. Though you’d frequency theory it solely for a down-home accent she can tongue-tied or dial adult during will, she grew adult customarily outward Danville, Virginia—yup, as in a Band’s aged lyric, “I served on a Danville train.” That finished Washington a consistent Emerald City participation in her youth—“It’s your, we know, imagination relative”—and after a place to see Bob Dylan, Springsteen, and Tom Petty concerts during her undergrad days during James Madison University. It’s not an collision that Elizabeth McCord is a Virginian, lifted “in a shadow” of DC, yet some-more alien than loyal denizen. “I had to do Washington a approach we gifted it,” Hall says.
She also knows that her code of positivist TV—“aspirational” is a word she and McCreary both like—doesn’t have a cachet it once did. But doing something darker isn’t in her: “The uncover isn’t asocial given I’m not cynical. we consider there’s something only pushing people in Washington that we don’t give them adequate credit for.”
Untempted by cable, aside from a brief pursuit essay for Homeland, Hall also admits to “thriving” on promote TV’s constraints. “There’s something about being limited that creates we some-more creative, and there’s something about a plea of seeking a broader assembly that we enjoy,” she says. Alex Cooley seconds a thought: “Cable is Breaking Bad, and we’re not. We’re Breaking Good.”
• • •
And yes: from Hall on down, everybody concerned knows that real-life Secretaries of State don’t cleanly solve a hellzapoppin’ general predicament each week.
But they pull a line between unwavering exaggeration and uninformed fantasy. “What we can get right we try to get right,” McCreary tells me—with vetting assistance from onetime Al Gore wallah Michael Feldman’s consulting outfit, a Glover Park Group, that has also helped bake authentic nuts and bolts into a Hollywood pies of, among others, American Sniper.
Some of a show’s unwavering distortions are no-brainers. “You notice a State Department has unequivocally pleasing paneled walls,” McCreary says. “Well, there are tools of a State Department that demeanour like that, yet not a whole State Department! Some of a offices demeanour like a 1970s hospital.” (Too true.) When we ask Feldman and his co-worker Adam Blickstein about Madam Secretary’s more illusory story lines, they spin Santa’s-elf jolly. “We don’t have halt energy over content,” says Feldman. Adds Blickstein: “If they listened to us on all matters, it would be a unequivocally tedious TV show.”
As everybody reminds me, a array isn’t designed for a cognoscenti. Though a wish is to give non-Washington audiences “a illusory demeanour behind a curtain” that isn’t altogether false per a dilemmas of superpower diplomacy, that small word “fictional” does give a uncover embodiment to dedicate what Alex Maggio calls “venial” sins. “Like articulate on secure landlines instead of a SCIF,” he amplifies, graceful me by presumption we know a shorthand for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. (I don’t.)
Fanciful or not, a few of Madam Secretary’s tract lines have finished adult awaiting or mirroring real-world events, from a Iran chief deal—the show’s chronicle was a full-on assent treaty—to Obama’s normalization of family with Cuba.
“Really, honestly, it’s given there are customarily so many ways things can work out, and infrequently it goes a approach we illusory it,” says Hall. She was tickled when a BBC interviewer attempted to get her to acknowledge that a White House uses her array as a passage for foreign-policy hearing balloons.
A opposite arrange of intersection of novella and existence was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s cameo as herself final fall. It came about when she, Leoni, Daly, McCreary, and Hall were all guest during CBS newsman Bob Schieffer’s list during a White House Correspondents’ Dinner and one of a actors suggested it on a coax of a moment, not awaiting to be taken severely until Albright reacted with enthusiasm. An amused Hall recalls a conversation: “ ‘Do we unequivocally wish to be on a show?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do we wish to play yourself?’ ‘Oh, yes.’ ”
Once a partial was written, McCreary got a call from Albright’s bureau that dumbfounded her. “Nobody’s ever called me about a custom for book notes,” she says. But it was value it given both McCreary’s and Hall’s favorite of Albright’s lines—“There’s copiousness of room in a universe for common men; there is no room for common women”—was a real-life Madam Secretary’s possess contribution.
Well, one of a real-life Madam Secretaries. True, Hall insisted before signing on—and still does—that Elizabeth McCord had improved not be mistaken for Hillary Clinton. But a certain Democratic presidential claimant stays McCord’s many apparent analogue customarily a same, and Clinton has called a uncover one of her dual TV guilty pleasures along with, a mite some-more provocatively, The Good Wife. Hall was somewhat nettled about that “guilty” part, yet McCreary says, “Yes, we have it on good management that she watches regularly. Somebody asked her if she’d be on it, and she said, ‘Maybe after—in a while.’ ”
This essay appears in a May 2016 emanate of Washingtonian.