Politics On TV: West Wing’s Joshua Malina And Madam Secretary Creator Barbara Hall

The West Wing
The cast of NBC's The West Wing. NBC
The West Wing
The cast of NBC's The West Wing. NBC

Politics On TV: West Wing’s Joshua Malina And Madam Secretary Creator Barbara Hall

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On the latest episode of Nerdette, we obsess over The West Wing with Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway, hosts of the recap podcast The West Wing Weekly. We discuss the musicality of Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, the importance of W.G. Snuffy Walden’s scoring, and exchange serious trivia.

We also talk to the creator of the CBS show Madam Secretary: Barbara Hall. It’s one of the shows that, in the ten years since The West Wing ended, helps fill the West Wing-shaped hole in Tricia Bobeda’s heart.

(Note: This is a condensed and edited version of Tricia’s Nerdette interview with Barbara Hall.)

Something that I really love about Madam Secretary is that is that it is always juggling diplomatic crisis and a house full of teenagers. Why was it important for you that the story show us both worlds?

Really, the story is only interesting in full context. Not just because politics are more interesting in full context, but a woman in a man’s world is more interesting in full context. What intrigued me right away was what is it like to meet with the President of the United States in the morning and the president of the PTA in the evening. I also wanted to bring in a third aspect of storytelling, which was interoffice politics. Because it was based off of my belief that even at the state department somebody’s upset about their parking space, or their stapler. One great thing that we get to do at the show is that we get to show people process. By the time you see what the State Department has done in real life, it’s done and it’s a headline. Being able to pull the curtain back on the process and show it — I just trusted that it would be interesting and it was.

One of the things that we get to do with the Secretary of State character is to do global stories, to pull all of these worlds and cultures together and put them in somebody’s living room with their family.

Barbara, you’ve also worked on Homeland, Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia and you’ve been writing TV since the early 80s. It looks like your first writing credit was on Family Ties?

[Laughing] That was my first.

Now, as a showrunner, what’s your job like? And how different does a writers’ room feel now than it did back when you first started?

It’s so interesting, because you’re right— as a writer, the better you are, the more you get promoted. And the more you get promoted, you get higher and higher responsibilities. And if you want to create your own show, you’re going to have to run it.

A lot of people learn what that job is while they’re doing it. I did work on Chicago Hope and I ran the writers’ room, but not the whole show. Then I learned how to run my own show on Judging Amy. And that was the moment I realized, ”Oh, this is a whole different skill set.”

What does your typical day look like as a showrunner?

Well I’ll speak to this show, because every show has its own specific circumstances, and ours has the fact that we have production in New York, and the writers and post-production in L.A. We’re not the only show to do that, but it creates certain challenges for me.

Sure, time zones.

Yeah, time zones. Because I’m three or four weeks here, and then a couple of weeks there, back and forth. A lot. It depends on where I am and it depends on what’s happening. It’s often like triage — you come in and you see what needs to be done today and you start doing those things. Basically what we do is this: we make a movie every eight days and it can never stop. So once you start production you cannot stop until you’re done with the season.

And you have to keep your finger on the pulse of all of it. That’s a lot to keep track of.

 Immediately I learned, ‘Oh, time management is probably the most important part of the job.’ Everything will derail if you don’t have a system and you don’t stick to that system.

Does your staff meet you at the elevator like the Secretary of State’s staff does so often on the show?

No, but i’m going to ask them to start.

One of the things about running a show, like running a company, is making sure everybody understands what their function is. I’ll give you my three rules for show running: one, hire people you trust and let them do their jobs. The other is, we’re all on the side of the show. We don’t have another side. If the show wins, we all win. And (third), everybody’s job is the hardest job. 

Those are good rules, I think, for any workplace. Let’s talk a little bit more about the political aspects of the show. I don’t think it glosses over the tough stuff, but it is a kinder, more collegial world than we see on Scandal or House of Cards. And honestly, it’s kinder and more collegial sometimes than our real political process seems to be these days. In this somewhat crowded landscape of political TV shows, why do we need Madam Secretary?

When I created Madam Secretary, it was an incredibly polarizing time in politics. So much so, that it felt like people couldn’t even discuss it. I always enjoy creating a discussion and inviting people to the discussion. That’s what’s interesting. So I felt we needed it for that reason. I also think strong women characters, certainly in positions of power in Washington, or anywhere really, is the chance to give people an image of what that looks like even through popular culture.

I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that Hillary Clinton said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that Madam Secretary is one of her favorite shows. How does it feel to hear that?

Of course, I found out the way everybody found out which was in the interview. I’m thrilled to know that. I would love to know more about what she thinks about it. We already had heard from Secretary Madeleine Albright early on (that she was) interested in the show. We were able to talk to her and get stories and she helped out a lot. I find it fascinating when people in that world reach out and talk to us about it.