‘Madam Secretary’ and the sex appeal of TV’s most powerful women

“Madam Secretary,” which stars Téa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA operative and university professor who finds herself suddenly elevated to the position of secretary of State, is a throwback in a lot of ways.

Like “The West Wing,” it is a show based on the idea that competence and dedication to doing the right thing can cut through pretty much any form of nonsense. And like plenty of other shows about Washington and politics, “Madam Secretary” is oriented outside the Beltway — Elizabeth and her husband Henry (Tim Daly) live, teach, and ride horses in what appears to be Virginia — without quite knowing why it makes a difference to focus on D.C. proper rather than Virginia or Maryland.

But most of all, “Madam Secretary” breaks with the current vogue by making Elizabeth a little insecure about her new-found authority. In the attached video, I had series creator Barbara Hall walk me through a scene from the pilot in which Elizabeth talks out some of those feelings with her husband.

One of the most delicious things about television right now is its profusion of powerful women whose ultra-competence and cool confidence is an enormous part of their sex appeal.

On “The Good Wife,” which CBS has paired with “Madam Secretary” on Sunday nights, attorney Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) cool, devastating style helped fuel her career resurgence after her cheating, corrupt husband (Chris Noth) was sent to prison. It also drew men, including her boss, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), her competitor-turned-business partner Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) and clients like the sexually adventurous Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker) and the eccentric Matthew Ashbaugh (John Noble) to her.

Similarly on “Scandal,” Washington fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) finds herself both a magnet for and drawn to men who see her as a potential savior. She begins an affair with Fitzgerald Grant (Tony Goldwyn) as she is doing a turn-around job on his presidential campaign, and then gets entangled with Jake Ballard (Scott Foley), a wounded veteran of her father’s covert operations program. The last season of the show ended with Olivia in a peculiar position: rather than trying to save Fitz, Jake, or either man’s career, she and Jake head off to try to make a go of it as partners, rather than as rescuer and rescued.

Even “Political Animals,” a USA miniseries about a secretary of State (Sigourney Weaver) who has more in common with Hillary Rodham Clinton than Elizabeth McCord does, played with the idea that a powerful woman is a turn-on. Weaver’s globe-trotting chief diplomat had to fend off requests from dates from ambassadors and attachés, even in her 60s.

So as Elizabeth settles into her role as secretary of State, let’s hope she stops fretting about her so-called “masculine energy” and starts to own it instead. If Hall wants to use “Madam Secretary” to give us a portrait of a power woman with a functional marriage, she might do well to take a note from some existing hits. Instead of having Elizabeth stress about whether Henry still finds her attractive, maybe Hall should let both of the McCords enjoy the frisson her new job brings into their bedroom, rather than making Elizabeth fret about it.