TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, CBS follows "60 Minutes" with two drama series about women juggling family lives and high-intensity jobs. One is a new series called "Madam Secretary," starring Tea Leoni as a college professor asked to step into the White House as the new Secretary of State. The other series is the returning drama "The Good Wife," starring Julianna Margulies as a lawyer who in last year's season-ending cliffhanger was asked to run for state's attorney of Illinois. Our TV critic David Bianculli is going to review both shows.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: My first impression of "Madam Secretary," back when CBS presented a brief a highlights reel when the new series was announced in May, was a good one. In fact, it was a great one. It had Tea Leoni returning to television in a show that looked like a perfect fit to be paired with a smart female-driven drama, "The Good Wife." Set in the White House in the corridors of power, "Madam Secretary" at first glance, had the feel, the look and even the energy and potential of "The West Wing" - TV's all-time best series about national politics. But then I previewed the entire "Madam Secretary" opening episode, which premieres Sunday night, proceeding and paired with the season six opener of "The Good Wife." And while I love the cast of "Madam Secretary," almost every role is played by someone who's done excellent work on TV, the writing and the unfolding storylines just keep spiraling downward and becoming more disappointing. The show, created by Barbara Hall from "Joan of Arcadia," starts with a strongly presented set up, but never manages to live up to it. Here's one of the earliest scenes from "Madam Secretary." It's when Elizabeth McCord, a college professor played by Tea Leoni, gets a surprise visitor at her home - the president of the United States, played by Keith Carradine. The secretary of state has just died in a plane crash. And in Elizabeth's kitchen, the president explains the reason for his visit. The scene is well acted, but not particularly well written.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADAM SECRETARY")
KEITH CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) The death of Vincent Marsh is catastrophic on many levels. It's a bad time to be without diplomatic representation.
TEA LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) Because of the peace talks with Iran and President Sharazz's (ph) upcoming visit to the U.S.?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) So you understand why I can't waste any time on this decision. And I want you to step in.
LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) Step into what?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) Secretary of state.
LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) You're joking. I don't mean you're joking, but you can't be serious. Obviously, you're serious. I just - why?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) I recruited you for the CIA. I trained you as an analyst. I know how you think, how you work. I trust you.
BIANCULLI: After that scene, "Madam Secretary" jumps forward two months. So Elizabeth is well into her new job. In one way, it's a bold choice because it skips the usual introductions of a new workplace and a new set of characters. But in another way, it avoids the difficulties inherent in staging those various scenes and establishing the conflicts. After the two-month leap forward in time, the conflicts already are there, and we viewers are asked to catch up. In the end, there's at least one conflict too many, with a running subplot introduced that throws a conspiracy theory into the already convoluted mix. There were two ways this show's producers - who include the actor Morgan Freeman - could've gone with "Madam Secretary." The series could emulate the intelligence of NBC's "The West Wing," or focus on the soap opera excesses of ABC's "Scandal." Despite a gold standard supporting cast that includes Tim Daly, Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek, "Madam Secretary" opts for the "Scandal" route. "The Good Wife," on the other hand, features some of the smartest writing on television right now, and many of the smartest characters. Series creators Robert and Michelle King made last year's season five the show's best yet. With the sudden death of one main character and the continuing shuffling of the relationships, both professional and personal, among all the others. Cable and streaming TV may be where almost all the action is on television these days, but the "Good Wife" holds the fort for broadcast TV beautifully. Last season ended with a quiet but stunning cliffhanger. As Eli Gold, the governor's political advisor played so brilliantly by Alan Cumming asked Alicia Florrick, the wife of his boss an expected question after a small holiday dinner at her home while music is played in the background. This season's premier episode on Sunday picks up seconds later with her answer, and we're off. It's a scene similar to the one from "Madame Secretary" except it's so much more gripping and more real. Julianna Margulies, who just won her second Emmy for the role, stars as Alicia. And when Eli pops his question, surprising them both, Alicia's response is to get up from the dinner table and begin clearing and rinsing dishes. Retreating into a more comfortable role as homemaker.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")
ALAN CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Alicia.
JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Yes?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Would you want to run for state's attorney?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) What?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Would you want to run for state's attorney?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I - no.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Why not?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Why not - Eli, are you serious?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Yes. I've been watching you for the last five years, you'd be perfect. We need a woman and people respect you, they like you.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I'm not a politician, Eli.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) But you have political instincts and you're a brand. You're Saint Alicia. Well, you said yourself you want something new - empty nest syndrome. Zach's gone now.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Yes, and I have another child. Is this about Peter? Did he tell you to ask me?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) No, no.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Then why are you doing this. I'm never saying yes.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Because you could win.
BIANCULLI: All these years in, I don't have to spend much time raving about why I love "The Good Wife." The legal cases they dramatize are as intelligent and as multilayered as the characters, and the acting from the guest stars as well as the regulars is marvelous. Each week on "The Good Wife," the show's opening credits don't show up until about ten minutes into the show and they always catch me by surprise because by that time, I'm so involved with the plot I forget that the credits haven't run yet. But when they arrive with flair and a bit of dramatic punctuation, they always remind me, week in and week out, that I'm watching one of TVs best dramas. "Madame Secretary," by being paired with the "Good Wife" on Sunday nights, suffers badly by comparison.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.