The new fall TV season has introduced a dark take on Mr. Rogers, a bunch of single parents, Emma Stone with a pill addiction, a new Magnum P.I., a coven of post-apocalypse witches, and the ever-familiar doctors who don’t play by the rules. But there is one undeniable, albeit unlikely, breakout star: Hillary Clinton.
Her fall TV takeover began last week with a surprise appearance on the premiere of CBS’s Murphy Brown revival, during which she joined the ranks of John Kennedy Jr., Rosie O’Donnell, and Bette Midler as a hopeful for the notorious position as one of Murphy’s secretaries. The episode’s meta humor touted a fictional version of Clinton’s secretarial background, as well as her experience with emails and teamwork skills. (“It takes a village.”)
On Sunday night, Clinton’s star turns continue, as she will join fellow former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Colin Powell on the fifth season premiere of CBS’s Madam Secretary. The dramatic stakes behind this appearance are considerably higher than her Murphy Brown gig. There’s been an attack on the White House, and Téa Leoni’s fictional Elizabeth McCord turns to her three predecessors for advice as, in the wake of the attack, a nuclear disarmament deal threatens to fall apart while a manhunt paralyzes the capital.
The assembly of former secretaries is historic. It’s reportedly, and understandably, difficult for the trio, who are friends, to even schedule dinner together. And while political cameos are hardly new territory—the Obamas, Bidens, Clintons, and Reagans all constantly appeared in pop culture—it’s certainly an interesting time for Hillary Clinton to rack up so much screen time, as audiences in turn attempt to glean how light-hearted or political she wants to, or should be.
Madam Secretary executive producer Lori McCreary estimates that it took about nine months, all told, to orchestrate the appearance, from gauging the secretaries’ interest to conceiving the storyline to coordinating their chaotic schedules to find a day when all three would be available. “After all that, when we were shooting, it didn’t hit us what we had just done until we shut the door, when I think it was General Powell who was the last to leave,” she says. “Literally Téa flopped down on her back in her dressing room. That’s how all of us felt. Like, oh my God…”
She calls the miraculous sequence of events that led to the feat of producing the episode as the “the birthday, the library, and the breakfast.” McCreary was invited as a guest to Bill Clinton’s birthday party last year, where Hillary Clinton, who has gone on record as a Madam Secretary fan many times, mentioned that she’d love to appear on the show. Clinton floated the idea of playing of a spy. (Imagine!) But McCreary, a bit more realistically, thought there was potential in Clinton coming on and playing herself.
Shortly after, McCreary attended the 50th anniversary party for the American Film Institute at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and was seated next to Madeline Albright, who had appeared on Madam Secretary once before. She told McCreary that she’d love to return to the show. That set wheels turning in the producer’s head as, by sheer coincidence, she was scheduled to have breakfast with Colin Powell about a movie project the next morning.
“I blurted out in the middle of this very polite conversation, ‘Would you ever want to guest star on Madam Secretary?’” she says. “He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I think I could do that.’ So in three coincidental conversations all of this came together.”
Then came the task of conceiving a story that would warrant such a monumental gathering of diplomats, one that would be both impactful and juicy enough for a TV drama, but acceptable enough to be approved by their respective teams. They knew that the attack on the White House would provide a frame for the episode, and that the idea of nationalism versus patriotism would be its underlying theme. From there, the show’s writers dove deep into each secretary’s own past remarks on the issue, weaving them into the dialogue.
“In the future when someone asks ‘What is producing?’ I will put this as the example of one of the things is true producing,” McCreary laughs.
Murphy Brown creator Diane English has a similar story about how she landed Clinton for her show’s premiere. She told Vulture the night after the cameo aired that it was actually star Candice Bergen’s idea to cast Clinton as the secretary. Having run one of Clinton’s PACs during her 2016 campaign, English had good friends who worked closely with her, and was able to get a draft of the script into her hands.
The scheduling, of course, was the biggest headache to arrange once Clinton came on board. While the episode was shot in front of a live audience in New York in late July, Clinton’s appearance had to be filmed two weeks later, in early August, on a closed set. That ended up being a boon for the series. They were able to keep the cameo a surprise until it actually aired on TV—a feat unheard of in today’s news cycle—even removing the scene from the episode given to critics to review.
Most interestingly, the lines Clinton ended up saying were almost verbatim to the draft originally pitched to her team.
“She really liked it,” English told Vulture. “I wondered if she was going to go for the emails reference... She’s totally up for making fun of herself. So that was delightful that she didn’t ask for that to be removed.”
It was hard not to view Clinton’s appearance on Murphy Brown through a politicized lens, considering the episode’s blatant anti-Trump agenda. The premiere ends with Murphy and the president involved in a volatile Twitter exchange that ends with Murphy threatening on air, “Oh you bring it on. #DanQuayle.” For as many viewers who were exhilarated by the tone and by Clinton’s appearance alongside TV’s self-proclaimed “Original Nasty Woman,” there were also those turned off by the politicized nature of the bit, or by Murphy Brown having Clinton on at all.
Especially given the hot-button nature of Madam Secretary’s nationalism vs. patriotism storyline, we wondered if viewers might perceive Clinton’s appearance Sunday night as a political statement, even alongside Albright and Powell. “I can’t say what our audience would take away from it,” McCreary says, pausing a beat to consider the possibility. “I know that our intent is really to show how a secretary of state who is currently serving can utilize people who have done the job before by bringing them in and asking for their advice.”
Clinton’s Madam Secretary cameo is especially interesting given how much press at the time of the show’s 2014 premiere assumed it was a ripped-from-the-headlines imagination of what life might have been like for the former secretary of state. CBS denied that then and now, with McCreary reiterating that Leoni’s Elizabeth McCord pulls from not only biographical bits of the three former female secretaries of state—Clinton, Albright, and Condoleeza Rice—but some of the men who held the position, too, including Henry Kissinger and John Kerry. (Leoni actually met with Albright before filming began.)
But the comparisons are bound to crop up again, as the drama’s fourth season finale included a scene in which Elizabeth floats the idea of running for president. Should the character go through with it in season five, it would put Madam Secretary as being one of the first TV series to dramatize a woman’s run for president in a world where a woman has actually gone as far as Clinton did in her race.
McCreary says the show hasn’t thought about the storyline in those terms, instead focusing on one of the things Elizabeth says when she talks to her husband about why she wants to run: she considers it a civic duty.
In the meantime, and in the wake of Clinton’s two CBS guest appearances, it’s hard not to fantasize about where she might pop up next. Mentoring a Young Sheldon? A patient—or newest point in a love triangle!—on Grey’s Anatomy? Or perhaps a surprise run-in with Jennifer Garner on HBO’s new comedy series, Camping. After all, she has been known to spend some time in the woods.