Public Service Announcement 5 of 2017: 24: Legacy; Madam Secretary; The People v O.J. Simpson

I’m genuinely curious about 24: Legacy, as a more or less unashamed fan of its parent series. This isn’t always an easy position to defend in polite liberal company, because the 24 caricature – it’s all torture, evil Muslims, and America First – sometimes has more traction than the show’s reality. As it happens, 24’s politics were always significantly more nuanced than its critics, most of whom probably don’t watch it anyway, would have you believe: it really wasn’t season after season of Islamist terrorists at all, and to suggest that it was is grievously to misrepresent the show’s equal opportunities approach to villainry. I’m a little more squeamish, mind you, on the question of whether 24 normalised the use of torture, particularly when there is little real life evidence that jamming the bad guy’s swingers into a vice and shouting “WHERE IS THE BOMB?!” at him would yield anything approaching actionable intel. But the show’s unique format demands that the plot keeps driving forwards, and patiently spending months building a rapport with a suspect probably isn’t going to deliver the same onscreen thrills.

Anyway, can a reboot without Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian be a success? Well, Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) is in as the hard-perimeter-demanding male lead, supported by Miranda Otto (who was in season 5 of Homeland), Unpopcult royalty Jimmy Smits, Dr Langham (Teddy Sears) from Masters of Sex, the much-missed James Novak (Dan Bucatinsky) from Scandal, DR NATHAN KATOWSKY (Gerald McRaney) from This Is Us, and 24 survivor Tony Almeida in due course. So I’d say that it has given itself a fighting chance. I’ll be reviewing the first episode at least (Wednesday 15 February, 9pm, FOX UK).

Also starting: the third season of Madam Secretary, an underrated show which, as I’ve said before, suffers a little because of what it isn’t – The West Wing, House of Cards, Scandal – rather than being appreciated for what it is: a modestly ambitious political drama for grown-ups with one of the best ensemble casts on network TV. Probably no reviews, but I love this show (Wednesday 15 February, 10pm, Sky Living).

Other stuff: the final season of Girls is under way (Mondays, 10pm, Sky Atlantic); season 13 of Grey’s Anatomy resumes (Wednesday, 9pm, Sky Living); John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has returned (Mondays, 10.35pm, Sky Atlantic); and Australian drama The Kettering Incident starts (Wednesday, 10pm, Sky Atlantic).

And I’ve kept the best for last. The outstanding The People v. O.J. Simpson – American Crime Story is on Netflix UK from tomorrow (Wednesday): one of the best TV dramas of recent years, with remarkable performances from a stellar cast, in particular Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, and the nonpareil Sterling K. Brown.

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Madam Secretary s2 ep 23

The second season of Madam Secretary has just finished on UK TV. And, perhaps a little to my surprise, I’m forced to reflect that it has stealthily become one of my favourite shows on TV at the moment. To be clear: it’s not “great TV”. It’s not a Sopranos, a Mad Men, a Good Wife. Nor is it even a seasons 1 and 2 Scandal; although, as it happens, it’s significantly more consistent, in terms of quality and tone, than present-day Scandal. It’s very good, though. Really very good indeed.

In this finale, ‘Vartius’, Elizabeth learns, through her idiosyncratic consultant Mike B (the always-welcome Kevin Rahm) that President Dalton has identified a replacement for her. This perturbs her – not only has POTUS said nothing about it to her, but dude’s a friend – but the explanation, which arrives in due course, is that Dalton wants her to run as his Vice-President at the forthcoming election. Which… eh. I wouldn’t want to limit the character – and I’d hope we’re way beyond tokenism; in five seconds I can think of two shows with female VPs – but I quite like Elizabeth where she is.

Still, I’m confident that, whatever happens, Madam Secretary will be fine. It’s an intelligent, well-constructed show which appears comfortable in its skin; a show which knows what it’s doing, knows its strengths, and uses that confidence to grow and evolve. The longer story arcs in season 2 were a perfect demonstration of that: the way in which geopolitical crises in Russia and Pakistan were developed, and the consequent strain on the McCord marriage, was a model of how to do that sort of thing within the constraints of a network drama.

Public Service Announcement 5 of 2016: Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, Elementary

It’s hard for me to say anything about Madam Secretary without sounding as if I’m damning it with faint praise. It’s a solid, carefully-crafted show, with an excellent cast: well-scripted and well-acted TV for grown-ups. This gives it an almost old-fashioned air; drop Mad Sec into the TV landscape of, say, 15 or 20 years ago and it would be hoovering up award nominations. In today’s world of television auteurs producing edgy drama for cable and streaming services, though, it’ll likely manage to go its entire lifespan without crossing Emmy’s radar. It’s good, and I always enjoy it, but it’s never quite felt like essential viewing. In short, what I think I’m saying is that Madam Secretary isn’t The Good Wife. Anyway, it’s back for season 2, and at the moment it looks set for another renewal. Fine by me (tonight, Sky Living, 9pm)

By coincidence The Good Wife itself – the outstanding network drama of its era – returns to UK screens this week for its seventh and, in all likelihood, final go-round: creators/showrunners Robert and Michelle King have indicated that they’re stepping down at the end of the season, and Julianna Margulies has described herself as “unemployed come April”. It might be as well: even Wife stans like Unpopcult wouldn’t argue that season 6 was up to the standards of previous years, and advance word from America would suggest that the decline in quality is ongoing in season 7. Still, even a tired Good Wife is better than just about anything else on TV, so we’ll be watching and reviewing until the end (Thursday 28 January, More 4, 9pm).

And Elementary is back after its mid-season hiatus. No unfunny “comedy” episodes, no overlong and self-indulgent flashback episodes: the best Sherlock currently on TV. Oh yes it is (Thursday, Sky Living, 9pm). Also starting on the same night, season 2 of Agent Carter (FOX UK, 9pm).

Madam Secretary s1 ep 22

Madam Secretary finished its first season with pretty much the same plot as in every other episode: Elizabeth is in big trouble but somehow manages to turn it around. This week, the big trouble relates to the failed Iran coup of a few weeks ago and the revelations about the death of her predecessor, all of which is leading to a Congressional hearing at which a grandstanding Senator with White House ambitions wants to bring her down. And if he can’t do that, he’ll get at Elizabeth’s husband Henry. As ever, though, with a leap and a bound Elizabeth manages to extricate herself, admitting that she passed information to Henry that he wasn’t entitled to have and thus breaching the Espionage Act, yet somehow getting away with it. Just once, I’d quite like one of her Hail Marys to fail, for something to go properly wrong for her, just to see how she – and the show – would cope.

Not the marriage, though; as I’ve said more than once before I get a bit fed up with TV drama always resorting to turbulence in a marriage to crank up the tension, but the writers have left the McCord union alone, and allowed it to be affectionate, mutually supportive, and plausibly sexy. Much of this has rested on the evident chemistry between the two leads, which has now spilled over into an offscreen relationship. I am TREMENDOUSLY excited about this development, incidentally. I LOVE when that happens.

In fact, in general I’ve rather warmed to Téa Leoni’s unshowy but effective performance over the course of the season, and Tim Daly has continued to vie with Željko Ivanek and Erich Bergen for the MVP award on the male side of the cast. Bonus points also for introducing Kevin Rahm – an actor I always like to see – as an eccentric but effective bare-knuckle advisor, and one or two marks off for the final episode snog between Mad Sec’s daughter and POTUS’s druggy son.

The show as a whole remained, as I said at the halfway point, a reliable pleasure, with the occasional ambitious Sorkin-esque flourish which the terrific cast handled well. Ratings remained solid in America, leading to a second-season renewal; I’m still convinced that this show has the potential to fly a little higher, but I won’t be devastated if it simply maintains the standard of the first season. Anyway, Madam Secretary didn’t rock my world, but it wasn’t supposed to. I like it, and if we get the next season in the UK I’ll totally be watching.

Madam Secretary s1 ep 12

We’re just over halfway through the first season of Madam Secretary, so it’s a good time to check in with it. So far, the model for just about every episode has been the same: an apparently impossible-to-solve foreign policy or diplomatic crisis is averted by the astonishingly competent Secretary of State Bess McCord (Téa Leoni), who in her spare time juggles her family and married life.

This episode, ‘Standoff’, ticks all the boxes: Bess and her husband head to New York for a romantic anniversary break (marriage). While they’re away, their son Jason injures himself (family), and a drug lord suspected of the murder on American soil is seized from a Mexican prison by an armed militia, who then hand him over to the grandstanding governor of Texas. The Governor refuses to surrender him to the Mexican authorities, who in turn threaten to withdraw their border security (intractable diplomatic problem). Eventually, Bess’s team need to bring her back from New York in order for her to avert war with Mexico, or something.

The show’s two longer-term arcs both get aired this week as well: Bess’s husband Henry (Tim Daly) is indeed, as I suggested in my review of the first episode, too good to be true, but not because he’s tomcatting around; or not yet, anyway. No: he’s an incredibly top secret spy, whose missions are so secret he can’t even tell the effing Secretary of State about them. And Bess, with the assistance of an old CIA friend, is investigating the death of her predecessor, which of course totally wasn’t an accident.

It’s formulaic, but that’s not necessarily a problem: it’s an upmarket procedural in the guise of a political drama, and I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed every single episode. The frustrating thing, though, is that every now and again the dialogue zings, and the outline of the show that Madam Secretary could be snaps into focus. Because the premise is good, and the cast is top-notch: Leoni and Daly are attractive leads, with Daly in particular turning in a relaxed, authoritative performance. The undercard has Željko Ivanek, Bebe Neuwirth, and Geoffrey Arend, all on form, together with Patina Miller as Daisy, the press secretary, who is in an office romance with Arend’s character. And Erich Bergen, an actor new to me, is a treasure as Bess’s assistant Blake. With a cast like that, you could be making a terrific show. As it is, Madam Secretary has to settle for being a reliably good show, which isn’t the worst thing to be by any means.

Madam Secretary s1 ep 1

Dr Elizabeth “Bess” McCord (Téa Leoni), CIA-operative-turned-academic, has a nice life in the country with her attractive, amiable husband Henry (Tim Daly), also an academic, their kids, and some horses. The news that the US Secretary of State has died in a plane accident which is obviously totally not an accident doesn’t really affect her, until the President himself (Keith Carradine) – an old friend who recruited her at the CIA – turns up on her doorstep wanting her to fill the vacancy.

Fast forward two months, and we catch up with Bess and the people surrounding her: her Chief of Staff Nadine (Bebe Neuwirth), who hates her; speechwriter Matt (Geoffrey Arend); Samar off of The Blacklist (Mozhan Marnò) as her newly-recruited stylist; her assistant Blake (Erich Bergen); and Chief of Staff Russell Jackson (Željko Ivanek).

Her immediate foreign policy challenge is that a couple of stupid American teenagers have managed to get themselves taken hostage in Syria; Bess wants to use some of her old contacts to get them freed, but is prevented by Jackson from getting to the President to discuss this option. She also has to plan for a dinner with the multi-wived King of Swaziland. And a former CIA colleague named George (William Sadler, John McGarrett in Hawaii Five-0) turns up at her house at night, in order to give her an off-the-books warning that the accident which killed her predecessor obviously and totally wasn’t an accident.

Much of this is comfort viewing, both in terms of characterisation and plotting. No-one is playing against type: Carradine is the iron fist in the avuncular velvet glove; Neuwirth is frosty; Arend is geeky; Ivanek radiates malevolence. (My internal jury is still out on Leoni.) As for the storylines: will Bess be able to melt Bebe’s heart? Will she be able to circumvent protocol and get to the President? Will she be able to bring the idiot teens home? Will she face Željko down? Can she handle the King of Swaziland and his dozens of wives? Will George make it to episode 2? And will her husband prove too good to be true?

Well, we don’t know the answer to the last one yet, but otherwise it all unfolds much as you might expect. Which is my main problem with an episode I otherwise enjoyed: it all seemed a bit… frictionless? But I liked it, and I’m encouraged by reports that it gets better as the run goes on. What with everything else we’ve got on at the moment I don’t anticipate regular reviews, but I’m going to keep watching.

Public Service Announcement 22 of 2015: Jane the Virgin, Madam Secretary

Two new shows fronted by female leads this week, but the gender of the main character would seem to be where the similarity ends.

First up is the long-awaited (very, very long-awaited) UK debut of Jane the Virgin, tonight (Wednesday) at 9pm on E4. Based on a Mexican telenovela, the premise seems a trifle alarming – poor Jane is unknowingly and mistakenly artificially inseminated with the sperm of somebody she used to know, WTF – but reviews have been stellar (no mean feat for a CW show), a second season has already been ordered and our own e says it’s great, which is the hat-trick as far as I’m concerned. Unpopcult is in, and on reviewing duties for the first ep at least.

And secondly, season 1 of CBS’s Madam Secretary takes up its post on Sky Living, tomorrow at 9pm. This story of a former (maverick, I’m sure) CIA analyst who’s asked to come out of retirement and slot into the Secretary of State job instead doesn’t interest me nearly as much, and Thursday is already a busy night tv-wise so I’m not planning on adding it to my schedule. Reviews are mostly decent, though, a second season has already been ordered, and Jed likes the look of it, so expect a review of ep 1 in due course.