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'Madam Secretary' channels Frank Capra, not Frank Underwood

The new fall network TV season begins this week, and one of the most highly touted dramas of the year is one of the biggest disappointments.

So big is the failure of “Madam Secretary,” a new CBS drama starring Tea Leoni as Secretary of State Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, that it makes me angry.

Usually I like TV shows that rattle my emotional cage, but not this one, which premieres at 8:30 p.m. Sunday. What maddens me about “Madam Secretary” is the lie it’s selling about Washington and the people who work there. It’s a seductive lie we are happy to believe because it makes us feel good about ourselves as Americans — even though we should know better.

So why write about a series that disappoints when there’s a whole fall lineup of new network shows from which to choose?

For one thing: to try to expose that lie, which Hollywood has been selling to audiences of millions since the days of Frank Capra and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” For another, because the CBS drama offers such a clean snapshot of a major difference between network TV and cable/Internet television — beyond the technology used to deliver them.

And then, there’s the way other parts of the media — like Politico, which is also in the business of glorifying Washington politicians — have been working hard to create buzz for the series with stories and events like a "Politico Playbook Lunch" with the cast on Friday.

On paper, “Madam Secretary” is definitely buzz-able.

Leoni is an engaging TV presence who has been getting good reviews from me all the way back to the 1992 Fox sitcom “Flying Blind,” when she was mainly doing just that as an actress in this short-lived show. But you could see even then that her onscreen instincts were very good. And she has consistently gotten better.

Morgan Freeman is one of the executive producers, and he’s been telling reporters how the series is really about the “empowerment of women.” That quote in Politico certainly makes it sound like an enlightened production worth an hour of your TV time each Sunday between “60 Minutes” and “The Good Wife.”

That time slot between two hits all but guarantees it will start out as one of the top-rated new series on television — just like “Commander in Chief,” with Geena Davis as the first female president of the United States, did on ABC in 2005 before it started sinking to a first-year cancellation. The similarities between the two series are striking, starting with both women coming to Washington from universities in Virginia.

Viewers first meet Leoni’s McCord, a Ph.D. and retired CIA officer, on the campus of the University of Virginia, where she’s now employed as a professor. She’s a smug professor who seems impressed with herself because she can verbally shred a student who is trying to talk his way out of an assignment deadline. We meet her as she’s hurrying across campus with the student at her heel.

I am not liking her already. Nor am I liking the attitude of the producers toward students and higher education.

Once she ditches the student, McCord heads for the classroom where her husband, also a professor, is teaching. Here she’s amused by the way the young women in the class so adore her husband, who is played by one of the worst actors in the history of television, Tim Daly.

And guess what? His character, a professor of religion, is just as smug as Leoni’s, and he thinks the students are there to worship him, too. The McCords positively coo at each other in their mutual cleverness, superiority and the total righteousness of being adored.

But never mind: By the five-minute mark of the pilot, McCord’s academic career is behind her when the president of the United States (Keith Carradine) shows up at her posh Virginia horse farm to ask her to become secretary of state.

Turns out he had once recruited her for the CIA, and he, too, adores her.

“You don’t just think outside the box — you don’t even know there is a box,” President Conrad says, showing a remarkable lack of originality even for a president. He tells McCord he wants her because she’s the least political, most ethical person he can think of for the job.

This is the point where some viewers might feel the need to close their eyes and work real hard on that suspension of disbelief thing the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about. And I’m not sure which is going to take more suspending — the part about the president showing up at her horse farm with motorcade and offering her the job, or the part about someone who is ethical rather than political being sought after for any kind of work in Washington these days.

Some viewers will then be switching to NBC, hoping they can still catch the kickoff of the Sunday night game.

Of course, McCord answers her nation’s call. And, of course, once she arrives, she is forced to do battle with a male nemesis — the president’s chief of staff, played by Zeljko Ivanek, an actor best known in these parts for his performance as Ed Danvers in “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

This could be a compelling, ongoing narrative, except in the pilot, neither the writing nor Leoni’s performance ever lets you think for a second that she is going to lose. She’s just too clever to do anything but triumph over the chief of staff, odious and sneaky as he might be.

When things get tough, she just end-runs him and ultimately goes to the president. Remember, he adores her.

“You said you didn’t want a politician in this job,” McCord begins in her big speech of the pilot episode. “This is me not being a politician. I didn’t uproot my life and my family to come here and sit in endless staff meetings and plan parties for potentates. I came here to do the job you said only I could do. So, for God’s sake, Conrad, let me do it.” (Don’t ask me why she addresses him by his last name in this key moment.)

The “job” this week involves McCord secretly using some old CIA contacts to try to save the lives of two innocent Americans teens being held captive in Syria — after the chief of staff categorically told her to stand down.

And, of course, President Conrad, a direct descendant of President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet of “The West Wing” (when it comes to fundamental moral decency), lets his secretary of state do it her way.

“Madam Secretary” is recycling “The West Wing’s” whitewashed version of a Washington populated at some of the highest levels by self-sacrificing people of great virtue, moral integrity and an unwavering commitment to public service.

It was hard to buy into that view by the end of that series’ run in 2006. Today, it is impossible for me to even be nice about it.

In the real Washington, the one where politicians in limousines glide by homeless veterans in rags sleeping along New York Avenue, which president would Conrad be?

Would he be the Barack Obama who couldn’t be bothered to put on a tie last month for the few minutes he spent in front of the press talking about the beheading of photojournalist James Foley before rushing off for golf? Or would he be the George W. Bush who dressed up in fly-boy combat gear to celebrate his “Mission Accomplished” moment on an aircraft carrier in 2003 even as he and his administration began their disastrous, seat-of-the-pants occupation of Iraq?

And which apolitical secretary of state would McCord be? Would she be the Hillary Clinton who defiantly asked her congressional questioners last year “what difference” the facts of what happened in Benghazi make? Or would she be the Condoleezza Rice who defended waterboarding during her term as the nation’s chief diplomat?

Given the dysfunctional Washington we must now suffer, with members of Congress spending more time fundraising than they do trying to govern, we can no longer afford this kind of TV lie. But the networks keep on telling it.

Thank goodness for cable, where Armando Iannucci and Julia Louis-Dreyfus can satirize Washington’s craven self-absorption and obsession with image in “Veep.” And let’s hear it for Internet TV, where Beau Willimon and Kevin Spacey can posit an even darker take of a D.C. landscape populated by men and women who will kill to achieve the highest office in “House of Cards.”

No thanks, Morgan Freeman. You’re not breaking any new gender ground here. “Commander in Chief” and a half dozen other series have been there and gone.

We don’t need more fake talk about “empowerment.” The politicians in Washington do that day and night before the cameras of MSNBC and Fox News, even as they renege on their promises to represent the interests of the people who elected them.

What we need is someone on network TV to create an honest and stirring drama that calls such politicians out for their betrayal and maybe, just maybe, shakes us out of our political malaise.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

On TV

“Madam Secretary” premieres at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 21 on WJZ (Channel 13).

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