Madam Secretary & Scorpion

Tea LeoniThe other evening I had the very weird experience of watching a very good, smart TV show followed immediately by watching a very bad, stupid TV show. And, admittedly, it may have been a study of contrasts; the latter may have suffered in comparison to the former and come off worse than it is.  On the other hand, at that point in the evening, I had several (okay, four) beers in me, so I should have been predisposed to enjoy the show.

But instead of hootin’ and hollerin’ with delight (as I’d done for the first show), I was hootin’ and hollerin’ with derision about how mindlessly, utterly stupid the second show was. As it turns out, critics seem to agree. On Metacritic, the first one has 21 positive critic reviews, nine mixed and only one negative. The second show? Only four positive, 15 mixed and five negative reviews.

The first show: Madam Secretary. The second show: Scorpion. Both new and on CBS.

Scorpion title

</Life As We Know It>

So this is a good news, bad news situation, and I’ll start with the bad news so I can end on a positive note. That means we begin with Scorpion, and we can start with the show’s title. You see it displayed in the image to the left. And I suspect that anyone who has worked with HTML might figure out where I’m going with this.  I’ll give you a clue: back in the days of George W., I used to have a large sign in my cube that just read: </Bush>.

I’ll give you the punch line and then explain the joke. The sign in my cube translates as (to anyone who “speaks” HTML): end of Bush. And this TV show’s title translates as: end of Scorpion.  I can only hope that turns out to be prophetic!

htmlFor those of you who don’t speak HTML, here’s a brief explanation:

HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) is the computer language (not, I repeat, not a programming language — there’s a huge difference) used to create webpages. Every webpage you see is written in HTML. There are other languages involved, JavaScript and CSS, for example, but it all starts with HTML.

What you need to know about HTML to understand what a stupid mistake the show’s title is involves how HTML represents, for example, bold or italic text.  Let’s say I wanted these three words to be in bold. The  HTML for that looks like this:

...wanted <bold>these three words</bold> to be...

The trick is the two HTML “tags” (highlighted in red). Your browser sees these tags as instructions. In this case, the instruction is to show text in a bold font. The first tag turns on the bold, the second tag turns it off. You’ll notice the two tags are identical, except for the slash in the second one.  It’s that slash that means “end of” something.

Scorpion cast

Saving Los Angeles from a coffee shop (because it has really good Wi-Fi and a cute waitress with a genius child).

Note: For the sake of clarity, I’ve cheated ever so slightly. The actual tag for bold is <b> in “old style” HTML and <strong> in modern HTML. The difference is that <b> (“b” for bold) is a specific markup command, whereas <strong> is a generic one.  One ethic of HTML is to be as generic as possible and to allow the user to have some control over what “strong” text might be.

No doubt the show’s creators thought the title looked hyper-smart and computer-ish, but instead, for anyone who actually knows HTML, they made a really strange choice.

And, I would argue, a really stupid one.

But then it’s a really stupid show, so perhaps it’s not surprising. And, as I said, I can only hope the show’s title predicts the show’s quick fate.

The show announced its vacant stupidity in the very first scene: Apparently it takes three helicopters, a bevy of heavily armed soldiers and a convoy of ground vehicles to take down one lone hacker (a child who was just trying to get plans of the Space Shuttle for his bedroom walls).  But I guess it makes a nice “sound and fury” opening.

Scorpion waitress

The waitress, in addition to being a love interest, brings the element of humanity into all that geniusosity!

And it never got better from that point on. The plot of the first episode was idiotic in the extreme. Did you know that the software for LAX is only backed up in one place? And that there is no version control, so new versions of software over-write older ones?  And that there is no quality control, so that major — system disabling — bugs just slip through and aren’t caught until they shut down the entire airport? Or that airplanes apparently carry a copy of the software that runs the airport?

Or how about the idea that planes just have no way to land without the software (which also disables their radios), so all they can do is fly around until they “fall out of the sky.” Or that Air Traffic Controllers on the ground yell, “Mayday! Mayday!” as a way of resuming communication with airplanes?

The writers obviously know nothing about software, nothing about computers, nothing about airports and nothing about airplanes.  Every aspect of the show just reeked of sheer, mindless idiocy.  The show was (and I really didn’t think this was possible) even stupider than Intelligence (also CBS), last year’s most ironically named show (now mercifully gone).

To quote from the Washington Post review (on Metacritic), “It’s a show about geniuses that gets stupider and stupider until it explodes.” Yep. Another irony from CBS.

Madam Secretary

There will be no  foolishness around here, am I understood?

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s turn to Madam Secretary, which impressed me as much as Scorpion (excuse me, </Scorpion>) depressed me.

Now, full disclosure, I’ve always liked Téa Leoni, and it turns out three other actors I like also appear on the show: Željko Ivanek (always a great “bad guy”), Tim Daly (who starred in the fun Wings) and Bebe Neuwirth (I had a minor crush on Lilith Sternin in Cheers). So that’s already a leg up.

More to the point, the writing is smart, and there was no mindless action or pointless gun play to be found. The resolution of the crisis (two American kids imprisoned in Syria) was handled diplomatically, not with gun play and attack helicopters.

It’s not just the writing that is smart. The characters are smart. Both Leoni’s character and her husband are highly educated, very capable, intelligent people (and so are both their kids). God, that’s refreshing.  And such a contrast to the pseudo-smart wannabes on that other show.

Leoni and Daly

Cute couple. And smart!

Madam Secretary reminded me every so slightly of one of my most favorite TV shows: The West Wing.  An element that detracts from that comparison is the addition of the standard “deep, dark government conspiracy” element.

TV shows today seem to rely less on their own quality of storytelling and more on season-long (and in some cases multi-season or series-long) arcs designed to entrap the viewer in an unfolding story. Remember that the primary mission of television is to sell commercial air time, and sucking in viewers is key to that.

The show’s creator, Barbara Hall, is a fairly fresh face in Hollywood. She was associated with the Showtime series, Homeland (which I thought was pretty good) and has worked on Northern Exposure, Chicago Hope and Judging Amy (all good shows).

So my final tally: CBS served up a gem and a turd. I’ll definitely be watching Madam Secretary.  It’s dubious that I’ll give </Scorpion> another chance.

Zeljko Ivanek

Oh, you know this guy (Željko Ivanek) is going to be trouble!

A couple of final notes: NCIS (my favorite show currently on TV) is back for its twelfth season. The first episode was very good, I thought. Over the years, McGee has completely matured out of his whiny stage and that’s nice to see. The computer virus bit was unrealistic in all sorts of ways, but wasn’t key to the plot. (Kind of funny that NCIS has software that shows all their computers in green (not infected) or red (infected), but I feel you have to allow a couple of “gimmes” in any plot.)

CBS has a new spin-off of NCIS, this one takes place in New Orleans and stars Scott Bakula.

I was hoping, hoping, hoping that this one would follow the JAG and NCIS modes and not the NCIS: Los Angeles modes (of excessive gun-play and a mostly useless eye-candy female cast member).  And it seems I got my wish! (Hooray!!)  I thought the first episode was pretty good, and I’m looking forward to seeing more. Mark Harmon is attached to the show, and that may account for it being a true child of NCIS.

Harmon and Bakula

Just like you know these are definitely the Good Guys!

And, by the way, Morgan Freeman is attached to Madam Secretary, which I take as a good omen. And we can hope he appears in the show at some point, which would be fun. (It’s almost odd that he’s not the president, but that would actually be both a bit cliché and maybe a little too on-point given that Leoni is clearly mirroring our former Secretary of State and next president, Hillary Clinton.)

And lastly, credit where credit is due: </Scorpion>, for all its idiocy, is a reasonably inoffensive show (other than being offensive to my brain cells).

No guns were fired, no bombs exploded, and there was only one car crash.  All the planes were saved, and no one had to appear in their underwear.  And the idea of the value of misfit highly capable geeks isn’t a bad one.  It’s just a pity the show is so stupid for all that it’s supposedly about geniuses.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

31 responses to “Madam Secretary & Scorpion

  • dianasschwenk

    I liked Madame Secretary too Smitty. I didn’t even watch Scorpion, the marketing of it did not interest me. NCIS is one of my all-time fave shows!
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, what can I say, you show excellent taste in TV! I know totally what you mean about the marketing of Scorpion. There have been times in the past when marketers didn’t really do a show justice, so I’m willing to give a show a chance, but this one was pretty much exactly what the marketing suggested.

      Do you like NCIS: Los Angeles, and have you tried NCIS: New Orleans, yet? The latter, delightfully to my mind, seems very much in vein with its parent, NCIS! One fan to another, I can definitely recommend giving it a chance (there’s a little bonus appearance by Ducky).

  • Jeff Schille

    I Agree completely with you. Madam Secretary was very well done. Good solid plot, casting and well acted. I was reminded of The West Wing also.

    Scorpion on the other hand, absolutely reeked of bad Hollywood writing. Ludicrous problems that could only be solved in the most improbable ways possible. I can’t comment on the computer side of the show, but virtually everything that dealt with aviation was pure Hollywood crap. I’m so tired of the magical hatch at the landing gear. It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    I’m willing to give a pilot show some leeway, but if this is the direction they continue, they’ve lost me. It’ll probably be a huge hit.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And I agree completely with you. (And nice to see you around these parts!)

      Yeah, the computer side of the show was utter bunk, the aviation side was utter bunk, the plotting and characterizations were crap,… it doesn’t leave much to like. I can put up with a lot (it’s only TV, after all), but when there’s something very wrong with every scene, and really nothing to like, it’s impossible.

      Here’s another one: What airspeed is necessary to keep a passenger jet in the air over the runway and allow it to regain altitude once the trick was done? I just now tried throwing some math at it. Wikipedia says runways are at least 6,000 feet and up to 8,000 feet. Various sources suggest a minimum of around 150 MPH. If we’re very generous and assume a 10,000 foot runway and a very conservative speed of 130 MPH, they had a hair over 52 seconds total.

      In that time they had to get the car up to speed, grab the cable, connect it, initiate and complete the download. All in a wind of 130 MPH (which I can tell you from personal experience is not easy). That she could grab the cable at all in that wind is a minor miracle.

      So to summarize: the basic plot problem was utter bunk, the general execution was utter bunk, and the big happy save-the-day resolution was utter bunk. (And how about the ATC guy in the tower yelling, “Mayday! Mayday!” as he re-established contact. Am I wrong? “Mayday!” doesn’t mean “Attention!” does it? Doesn’t it mean, “Help! I’m in an aircraft that’s in real danger of crashing right now!!”

      Maybe if I get really, really bored I might give the show another shot, but it’s not likely. Just going ahead and being really bored actually sounds like a better option.

      Wouldn’t it be nice if the public shows the good sense to stay away from that show and to make Madam Secretary a hit?

  • Doobster418

    Thank you for this post. You saved me from wasting time. I recorded the first two episodes of “Scorpion” because I thought the premise sounded intriguing. But based upon your review of the show, I think I’m going to delete the recordings and use that hour an a half to better purposes.

    I did watch the first two episodes of “Madam Secretary” and liked them. I agree with everything you said, although I am getting kind of tired of shows with a protagonist who, despite everyone telling her (or him) that they are totally wrong, goes ahead and acts against all advice and always ends up being smelling like a rose. It’s a little unrealistic and takes some of the authenticity out of the drama. No one is right 100% of the time. Still, it’s a good show and I will continue to watch it.

    “NCIS New Orleans,” too. (And FWIW, I like “NCIS Los Angeles,” I like the characters and their interplay.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      …shows with a protagonist who, despite everyone telling her (or him) that they are totally wrong, goes ahead and acts against all advice and always ends up being smelling like a rose.

      That’s a really good point, and I sympathize. It’s the idea that the hero knows the situation so much better than all those other foolish people. It’s also the idea of the individual against all odds as well as the one about breaking the rules (or defying orders) to “do the right thing.”

      I have a suspicion that the age and experience of the viewer is a big factor. The disconnect between reality and fiction is part of fiction’s attraction (escape, adventure, parable, pleasure), but there’s a threshold were one just can’t suspend disbelief anymore. (And so much fiction today requires thick steel cable suspension as it is.) I wonder if, as one experiences more and more life, and more and more fiction, if that threshold doesn’t get higher and higher.

      And there’s an interesting balance that has to be found between the unreality of fiction and the authenticity of the story. We do want some level of unreality, otherwise it’s just a documentary. And can be boring unless you really enjoy the subject matter.

      In tonight’s episode, Madam Secretary spends several days in long, pointless meetings with all sorts of government officials and nothing is decided and nothing happens. Frustrated by the inactivity, the Secretary picks up her children from school and has dinner with the family. In the weeks that follow, exactly the same thing happens.

      I do watch NCIS: Los Angeles. It’s never risen to the threshold point for me, but I’m a bit askance at the weekly gun play. Shows that are murder mysteries or police procedurals obviously need at least one dead body, but I just wish they didn’t need to shoot several people every week. I do get a huge kick out of Linda Hunt’s character, and I’m pretty comfortable with the others. It’s just kind of low man on the totem pole of shows I watch regularly.

      • Doobster418

        Yeah, I know. Ordinary shows about ordinary people would not get extraordinary viewership. But again, in real life, people make mistakes and don’t “do the right thing” 100% of the time.

        One of my favorite TV shows is “Suits.” It’s about a bunch of super lawyers (if that’s not an oxymoron), but they don’t always get it right. They don’t always win every time. Sometimes they lose big time and have to dig their way out. It’s good drama with at least a semblance of reality thrown in.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not familiar with Suits, but that was one of the things I always liked about Law & Order. The endings weren’t always happy — the Good Guys didn’t always win. It wouldn’t surprise me if the writers on Madam Secretary don’t throw in a defeat or two. We can hope so.

  • reocochran

    Oh, oh! I like “Scorpion,” which has the bar named Scorpion, as one of their ‘hang outs,’ and the past week’s show ended up with the lyrics, “Raunchy like a hurricane…” which the group sings. I am a little less likely to enjoy “Madame Secretary,” since it is my ‘second choice,’ while I am seeing it only on commercials from my ‘first choice.’ Oh well, we don’t have all the same tastes in shows, but I do think we do in commercials. I wrote some of the ones I agreed on, on that post today! smiles!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      You betcha! Taste is, well,… a matter of taste!

      For the record, I’m going to have to write another post about Madam Secretary very soon, because I love that show. The third episode features her husband (who is a religion professor who teaches ethics) being asked to compromise his ethics in order to save someone’s life. He refuses — ethics are not relative or adjustable! They find a way to save the CIA spy’s life anyway (proving that moral compromise is not necessary), and the characters on that show generally all have sterling ethical values. That is so refreshing to me — seeing people actually discussing ethics and then refusing to do the wrong thing.

      Compare that to the morally repugnant shows — filled with despicable characters — Scandal and the new How To Get Away With Murder. Both shows are by Shonda Rhimes, and for my money both shows are utter disgusting filth. If you like or watch these shows, I Don’t Want To Know!

  • reocochran

    Hi W.S.! I gave “Madam Secretary” another chance last night and you were right! I liked the idea of trying to make a wise decision, while not compromising the country or other decisions. The Chinese girl asking for asylum, along with the international implications and a treaty on the line, held my attention. Maybe now that I understand Bebe Neuwirth’s character more, I will be able to grow sympathetic to others I was uncertain of. They are definitely working on character development. Not ready to say it is like “West Wing,” yet! Thanks for encouraging me, I mentioned this in a “This and That” post, without saying WHO had been the impetus, spurring me on to watch more of this show!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I haven’t seen that episode, yet, so I don’t know anything about any Chinese people or treaties. I usually wait a week to watch on OnDemand, because after a week (or thereabouts), they show it with reduced commercials.

      The episode before that (episode #3) really impressed me. In that one, she needs her husband to give an “A” grade to a Russian politician’s daughter (who isn’t doing well in his Ethics class). The grade is part of a deal she (Madam Secretary) is trying to put together to save an imprisoned CIA agent’s life.

      Her husband refuses, even though it could cost a life, because, after all, hello, Ethics class? They have a great almost fight, and she ends up agreeing the deal is no good. They end up… [well, that would spoil it]

      I agree isn’t not really like The West Wing, but the ethical standards and ideals of the characters is what connects it with that show for me. (And obviously because it takes place in D.C. and involves the President and people around him.)

      Glad you’re liking the show. I think it’s a much better choice than </Scorpion>… you can let that one be your alternate to switch to during the commercials! 😀

      (Come to think of it, I suppose I relate more to the ‘people of a certain age’ on Madam Secretary more than all those young kids on </Scorpion>.)

  • ~ Sadie ~

    I really liked Madame Secretary, too!! For some reason, turned the channel after – the other one didn’t particularly appeal to me. Or maybe there was something else on I wanted to watch LOL!
    Enjoyed the post, WS!!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! I’m not sure which show you mean by “the other one.” (I watch via OnDemand, so I have no idea what nights most shows appear, let alone what follows them! The only reason I even know which channel they’re on is because OnDemand lists them by channel.)

      Hmmm… According to the CBS website, The Good Wife comes on after Madam Secretary… is that the one you mean?

  • Ann

    Just saw scorpion and wondered if the logo at the end was meant to be HTML. My husband didn’t know what I was talking about and it was driving me nuts.
    It definitely seems like they reached quite a bit for the plot line based on an actual team, but its entertaining.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Hello, and welcome! Thanks for stopping by, reading, and commenting!

      Well, now you know! It is HTML, and it’s HTML with the strange choice of translating as “end of Scorpion.” I’ve realized the show’s title encapsulates my primary problem with it: Stuff that looks kinda cool, but which just isn’t right if you really understand what you’re seeing. That pilot episode was filled with stuff like that, and stuff like that makes it hard for me to enjoy the show.

      But then I’ve always been a “picky eater” and a “picky viewer”! XD

  • athenaminerva7

    I like watching scorpion as it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s the geek equal of say coronation street. It’s easy going and cheesy coz it’s american. The title also shows laziness by just using a self closing tag as they will shorten wherever possible. Also logos con carne meaning you eat data like meat? I also liked the search box description about godot 😉

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