If you’re watching the premiere of CBS’ new drama “Madam Secretary,” which airs tonight, Sunday, Sept. 21, and you hear someone quote Thomas Aquinas, and there’s a scene in a Catholic Church, no, you’re not dreaming.
And you have executive producer–and “Joan of Arcadia” creator–Barbara Hall to thank for it.
“Madam Secretary” stars Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a college professor and former CIA analyst who, after the suspicious death of the Secretary of State, gets tapped by the president (Keith Carradine) to fill the role.
If you need any further proof that this is not about former Secretary of State (and possible 2016 presidential contender) Hillary Clinton, a political creature if there ever was one, the press release states that the Commander in Chief “values [McCord’s] apolitical leanings, her deep knowledge of the Middle East, her flair for languages and her ability to not just think outside the box, but to not even acknowledge that there is a box.”
On the personal side, McCord’s happily married to religion professor Henry (Tim Daly)–who’s the one quoting Aquinas–has a couple of kids at home, and an older daughter who shows up later. She’s also horsey and unpretentious, with no apparent political ambitions…and no apparent politics, at least for now.
Talking to CatholicVote this past July at a press event in Beverly Hills, California, Hall, an adult convert to Catholicism, says of Henry, “He’s Catholic. I think he’s cradle Catholic; we establish that in an upcoming episode. He has a vast life experience, but he’s a religion scholar, also. So, he has a perspective on world religion, but his own practice is Catholic. I think he still practices.”
Told that seeing an actual practicing Catholic (who’s not a monk, priest or nun) on TV would blow people’s minds, Hall says, “Well, stick around. You know that I’m fascinated by depicting religion in a way that confounds people’s expectations, because, not unlike politics, that’s a world that we need to expose to popular culture.
“It’s a fascinating world. I think it’s really fun to reveal that in a more realistic way. I had an opportunity to do that, so I did.”
But, Hall is a bit less definite when it comes to Elizabeth McCord’s faith.
“I’m not sure, actually,” she says. “I’m not being coy about it, because I haven’t gotten to it, and I haven’t decided. But I think that there is an ongoing debate about religion and how to use it and how to practice it. Honestly, I know I’ll get to that moment where I’ll know what that is.”
Just watching the pilot and how Leoni plays the role, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn she was some sort of non-practicing mainline Protestant or Episcopalian.
“Something like that,” says Hall. “It’s always interesting to me to depict people who have a strong moral center, a humane center. She’s driven by her humanitarian instincts, even in the CIA. That was about wanting to help people and stop pain and keep people safe.
“And her character left the CIA over ethical issues, so I know she has a strong code of ethics, and I know it drives her. I think maybe sometimes she thought of that more than she’s thought about religious practice.”
Asked why it’s so rare to see devoutly religious Christians or Jews on TV, Hall says, “To depict religious characters in a realistic way means you have to really study their religions, and I’m just speculating, but I think sometimes people are afraid to go deeply into it and study it, because they might catch it.
“So, my frustration in seeing religious characters on TV or not, is, even when they are, and people have only scratched the surface of it and have studied enough about religion to trot the character out there, they get a lot of details wrong.
“That’s as much about me being a writer and a consumer of popular culture as it is having an interesting religion or religious practice. I just want you to know what you’re talking about. As someone who’s being entertained, I just want to believe I’m in good hands.”
But Hall doesn’t necessarily let her own beliefs dictate her storytelling.
“It doesn’t,” she says, “and I’ll tell you why. It does in that I have a moral center as an artist, which is about truth-telling and also about pursuing excellence, and that just comes from the people I admire and want to be, having a great regard for writing and wanting to be the best at it, and not fool anybody about it. I want to hit the mark.
“So, I have an ethical code as a writer that’s about that. And, as a writer, I have an obligation to use the whole landscape of the human experience, so there’s nothing I’m afraid to talk about. But I want to keep it consistent in terms of how the human experience really does work, and the human psyche and psychology and all that.
“I just can’t divorce behavior from those laws of emotional and psychological physics. It has to work. It frustrates me. You can’t show someone exhibiting psychotic behavior and make them not psychotic.”