Last Sunday, Madam Secretary premiered on CBS, just after 60 Minutes. The hour-long drama, which stars Tea Leoni, is (so far) the story of Elizabeth “Bess” McCord, a former spy turned college professor, a happily married mother of two teenagers, who gets called up by POTUS—a former intelligence head himself—when the Secretary of State is tragically killed in a freak airplane crash. Would she take the job?

Of course she would.

The pilot draws on our by now well-established political TV vocabulary to pack a lot into its narrative: there is some intrigue, some comedy, some nice moments of marital harmony, and of course the need to perform some political gymnastics in order to do good in the world. There's also a bit of Thomas Aquinas from Bess's husband Henry (Tim Daly), an apparently appreciative religion professor at Georgetown (stay tuned for commentary, if this becomes significant), and a cast of minor characters that recall the fun quirk of the minor characters who pop up in another political TV show: West Wing. Also, it's nice to see Leoni, aged 48, in a leading role.

Actually, Madam Secretary recalled West Wing to me in several respects, not just for the marriage and the characters, but for the way it characterizes politics in DC. Over at The AV Club, Sonya Saraiya gave the pilot a B+, saying that the show is solid and has the seeds of being something great, but “its idealism and patriotism both sound a little too uncomplicated for the modern viewer choosing among True Detective, Game Of Thrones, and Homeland on a Sunday night.”

So I'm gonna go out on a limb here: I'm totally okay with that. For a reason I hope is good.

Don't get me wrong: I love dark, sinister political comedies, which have been the stuff of drama for a long time (well before Shakespeare wrote Macbeth or Richard III, on which House of Cards is based). Critics have alternately praised and lamented the fact that after The West Wing, our political dramas have been almost wholly cynical, featuring bad people twisting the political process to bad ends.

But, people: all of our dramas are doing that right now. The sole standouts are The Newsroom, sort of, and Parks and Recreation. (I wrote about this earlier this year.) One is preachy and sort of misogynistic; the other is a sitcom that's ending its run this year.

It's important to note the bent of our political shows, because not only do they say interesting things about our national psyche, but they shape that psyche. They shape how we approach our engagement with politics. They shape our future as a society governed by the people. And they shape it far more tellingly than any speech or reasoned political argument.

Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'
Image: ABC

Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

The philosopher Charles Taylor identifies one of the “pathologies,” or sicknesses, of the modern age as being a sort of tyranny of indifference. That is, the modern focus on individuals is all well and good, and it has done positive things for us (an emphasis on the dignity of each human, for instance). But when we turn too inward, when we don't balance this emphasis with a recognition of how important the fabric of society is, we can end up with the tyranny that results when individual people become too apathetic to bother voting or being involved with politics.

And let's be honest, we Americans don't vote much as a people. When we do it, it practically acts like an American Idol episode: we vote for president (well, just over half of us do), because it's a Media Event, but we rarely vote in state or municipal politics unless our personal interests are at stake (my taxes, my budget, my land). And we have the overwhelming sense that not only does it not really matter, but that my life won't be all that affected. Following Foucault: history is just the exchange of power.

I'll be honest: this affected me for a long time. I am a millennial (well, barely; I was born in 1983, which puts me at the top end of the age spectrum), and millennials like to call themselves apolitical or nonpolitical. This is because the political landscape we grew up in is one where left and right are not just ways of thinking, but identities that shoot missiles at one another. We grew up in a world where, for instance, to be evangelical was to be Republican, and that meant a lot of things that don't actually mean “conservative.”

I am lucky enough to have worked in the company of several thoughtful people who helped me navigate these waters with an awareness of history and tradition, and what those mean for policy, and also why it is right and good to work and talk and have friendships across political lines (distinct from ideological lines).

But not everybody has—in fact, most people haven't—and that's why it's important that Madam Secretary premiered less than a week before Scandal returns for its fourth season (tomorrow night on ABC). After thinking about it for a long time (maybe too long!), I think it's useful to make a distinction between our antihero political shows and Scandal, which, I think, is fully dystopian—and not in a good way.

In the moral universe of, say, House of Cards, the protagonists at the center, Frank and Claire Underwood, are sexy political geniuses bent on their own good, and they pull others (including some good folks) into their swirling vortex of power-mongering, tempting them to overcome their better angels and succumb to base instincts: hunger for money, for sex, and for, above all, power. They ruthlessly destroy people who get sucked in, like Congressman Peter Russo, just to name one.

But unless I miss my guess, and I don't think I do, the title and its source material belie the fact that like all good antihero shows, this tale will not end on a positive note for the Underwoods. That is to say that while good may not win out, bad comes to a bad end. There are still people with some moral sense left. In this way, the show follows Shakespeare.

Scandal, by contrast, is in a world where any sense of the moral institutions that support our society have crumbled, including—importantly—the very sense of dignity at the core of the Republic. That term (“the Republic”) instead gets tossed around by various parties purely as a way to get your own way. "Saving the Republic" is a way of saying "saving face." There is no talk of the common good, or even of the populace; it's telling that in Scandal we get nary a public protest and barely any contact with citizens at all.

The DC of Scandal is a hermetic little lockbox in which only about six people do anything, and all of them do things purely for their own benefit. This is dystopia. An apocalypse has occurred before Scandal begins. Not a physical one: a moral one.

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Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'
Image: ABC

Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington in 'Scandal'

A dystopian story is one in which the apocalypse (of some kind) has happened, and the worst parts of the order have taken over. Think, for instance, of The Hunger Games. There is no final redemption, no re-ordering of the world so it is better; it is just thoroughly rotten, and will be, forever.

Scandal gives us that story. A colleague of mine, Matthew Parks, has argued that Publius, pseudonymous author of the Federalist Papers (ironically, given the pseudonym of the informant in Scandal) and Abraham Lincoln together warn that if the “consensus that animated the American founding were to be shattered, the form of union might remain but the substance would be gone.” In other words, if we were to have the form of government but not the understanding of human nature and the nature of Republic offered by the Federalist, we'd end up with a morally bankrupt government.

Parks continues: “But when a critical mass of leaders, concentrated in one party and (in Lincoln’s day) one section, denied that which was at the heart of the regime, advocated their position with evident persuasion, and proposed and enacted important measures consistent with it, the danger was real and, unless arrested by a more powerfully persuasive response, ultimately fatal to the political and perhaps social peace of the nation.”

This is precisely the picture of the American government that Scandal gives us: the form, and not the moral content. This is not a particularly Christian moral consensus, though certainly informed by the more or less Christian consensus of its time. It is a recognition of the good and evil that lies at the heart of man, the understanding that conflict will always exist, and the need for people in power to pursue justice while recognizing that people have different interests at heart.

This is why the dystopian designation for Scandal is important. The apocalypse “reveals” the true order of things. In this case, the apocalypse is a moral one: the true order of things is exactly what Charles Taylor describes. It is every man for himself. There is no right or wrong, nothing that transcends us. If it is expeditious for you, then it is the right thing.

The funny thing about Scandal is that its sense of “right” and “wrong” has little to nothing to do with any judgement being handed down from on high, or even just from across the table. Olivia is always, always talking about “wearing the white hat,” but what she means by this is doing bad things for reasons she thinks are probably good. Why are they good? Well, because . . . they are. The show makes no attempt to establish a moral framework.

Furthermore, there has been no moment (I think I'm right on this) in which someone acts in the interest of others and doesn't pay for it dearly. In the tragic finale, this happened to truly tragic consequences, and it was the moment at which the show (for me, anyhow) gave up its moral pretenses.

This matters.

This matters because Scandal is a much-watched show (one of the most-watched shows and most talked-about shows on TV—check the numbers), but it's one that's giving us a dystopian view of politics. In its realistic way, the show purports to give an accurate view of what politics are actually like. And in that way, I daresay, it discourages watchers from getting involved.

But there is another way. There is something in our order worth fighting for. I know: our world is messed up. Our order, our society, has been steamrolled by corporate interests and oligarchic bloviators who care mostly about winning, not about serving.

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'Madam Secretary'
Image: CBS

'Madam Secretary'

Call me crazy, though: I think there is something at the root of what we've got that is good: an older sense of freedom, of liberty not just from but for, of an individual dignity that calls for a sense of not just obligation, but duty.

I think shows that give us characters who get muddled and then straightened out are good for us, because for those who want to think about politics, they're a story worth living into.

Nobody needs to be Frank Underwood . But somebody needs to be Jed Bartlet.

And the rest of us need to find a reason to care again. Not to hope: just to care.

I don't know where Madam Secretary is going. But I've watched West Wing, a show filled with fallible characters who, as my friend Rob Joustra pointed out last year, are nevertheless both the smartest and the most virtuous people in the room.

Maybe I'm just going all Jimmy Stewart here, but: is it too much to hope that we could have another show where a virtuous, smart character—let alone a woman—could give a viewer hope that there is something in our order worth saving?

Bonne chance, Madam Secretary. I'm rooting for you.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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