‘We like to take on issues that are just starting to be discussed’

Debarati Palit Singh
Monday, 8 April 2019

Barbara Hall, the creator and showrunner of political drama Madam Secretary, shares how the series has changed her outlook on politics in terms of the various layers and the processes involved

Elizabeth McCord is based on an amalgam of powerful women in politics, especially a combination of all three former secretaries of state, says Barbara Hall, creator and showrunner of the CBS political drama Madam Secretary. 

Hall is promoting the series, which has gone to become one of the popular series on American television. The series which revolves around the career and marriage of of Secretary of State and former CIA analyst McCord (played by Téa Leoni), will air season 5 from April 10.   

Hall, a television writer, producer, novelist and singer-songwriter, is known for creating and producing the CBS legal drama Judging Amy and fantasy family drama Joan of Arcadia. She served as co-executive producer on the political thriller Homeland. 

Excerpts from the interview:
- In the current season, what are some of the issues that we are going to see?
We’re going to continue story lines regarding climate change and its effect on living conditions around the world, and how those issues create dilemmas for the State Department and national security. We’re going to show Elizabeth ramping up for a run for presidency as she takes on an opponent who is aligned with nationalism. 

- What kind of research goes into writing Madam Secretary since the series touches upon sensitive issues like family separation?
As far as research is concerned, we work with a media group called Glover Park. They have several people on staff who have held advisory positions in the White House or the Pentagon. They also have connections with other public servants and we’ve had the good fortune to meet with many of them--former State Department employees or people who have served in the presidential cabinet. We meet and take input from both sides of the aisle and are fortunate to be able to talk to experts in all areas of politics and diplomacy. We like to make sure we have the details right even though we might push the envelope in trying to tell the most dramatic version of what could really happen.

- How do you go about writing about the issues? Do you write topics which are being discussed currently? Is there any issue that you and your team want to write about?
We like to take on issues that are just starting to be discussed and then we game them out to the most interesting or dramatic conclusions. In some cases, we take on issues that have already played out in the news, like family separation, but we create a narrative more specific to “our” political environment. We like to concentrate on how that narrative affects Elizabeth as Secretary of State as well as someone who is considering a run for president. 

- How much has your outlook towards politics changed since you have started writing for the show?
I would say that my outlook on politics has just deepened in terms of understanding the layers and the process. Working with foreign policy experts, I’ve certainly learned a great deal about many global regions, their political, cultural and religious traditions. Most importantly, I’ve come to understand just how important diplomacy is to the world economy as well as security. 

- Who was your inspiration behind writing Elizabeth McCord’s character?
Elizabeth McCord is based on an amalgam of powerful women in politics, especially a combination of all three former secretaries of state. I also gave her an element of the “outsider” by bringing her in from the world of Intelligence rather than politics. I always add a bit of myself and my own journey as a woman in a predominately male profession. As with politics, the landscape of Hollywood is changing but when I began, I felt very much in the minority. I wanted to give Elizabeth a history like that. She has changed in that she has grown into her a job. She is someone who understood foreign policy down to the ground but she had to figure out the layers of diplomacy and inner office politics. Now she’s about to take a leap into actual politics and she’ll have a learning curve there, too.

- Do you feel that there is certain kind of bias towards female writers like yourself?
As mentioned above, I do feel as with most industries and institutions in our country, women have a different kind of journey in Hollywood. There are many trails still left to be blazed but I think we are on the right track.

Catch Madam Secretary season 5 from April 10 at 5 pm on AXN

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