It’s fair to say that a significant portion of viewers who will tune in to NBC’s State of Affairs tonight won’t be doing so because they are overly intrigued with the plot — a political thriller about a CIA analyst, and a hybrid of Homeland and Scandal with a bit of Madam Secretary thrown in — but rather because they are intrigued by lead actress Katherine Heigl’s return to television. It’s a show for both her fans and her haters, a much-promoted but only vaguely heralded career reboot for Heigl, who hasn’t been on TV since she famously exited Grey’s Anatomy in Season 6. She’s been on a streak of forgettable romantic-comedy films ranging from the truly offensive and awful (The Ugly Truth) to the acceptable-to-secretly-watch-on-TBS (27 Dresses). State of Affairs isn’t exactly a triumphant return, nor does it even prove that she deserves yet another chance on television.
Love her or hate her — and not many opinions fall anywhere in between lately, since she’s gained her current salty, spoiled reputation — Heigl is definitely suited for romantic comedies: She resembles our collective ideal of America’s Sweetheart and has a blank way of acting that works well with the blank material she’s so often given. The rom-com roles that Heigl has taken (always the bridesmaid but never the bride, a TV producer who is obsessed with self-help books, a clueless suburban wife who learns her husband is a contract killer) don’t require her to do much heavy lifting. All she needs to do is cast longing looks across the room and flash sad smiles and make out with a hot actor for an extended period of time during a sweeping 360-degree shot with an accompanying swelling romantic score.
She is good in these rom-coms (particularly Knocked Up, which may be the only one of Heigl’s films most people are willing to admit they love) or at least as good as one can be in them, and she was apparently good enough in Grey’s Anatomy to win an Emmy Award. But she is woefully out of place in State of Affairs, unable to convey the intensity, urgency, and emotion the show needs her to — though, in her defense, the script barely conveys these things, either.
State of Affairs is supposed to be a vehicle for Katherine Heigl. As Charleston Tucker, a CIA analyst with a hilarious name that suggests a fancy racing horse wearing a monocle, Heigl’s character — her “sympathetic” and “relatable” character, who is written so weakly that I have to put every one of her characteristics in quotes — is supposed to evoke empathy from the viewer. Charlie, as she is nicknamed, is sad and flawed but also good at her job and even better at drinking. The POTUS, Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), loves and respects Charlie so much that Charlie has improbable access to the President and roams freely in the White House. She jokes around with her coworkers, proving that she is fun to hang out with but also serious when she needs to be. She does shots at the bar and picks up guys but is always awake and alert and not hungover when it’s time to go to work at one in the morning. We are supposed to like her and think she’s cool, and it’s easy to see that this is also supposed to be an extension of Heigl, that we are supposed to like her as an actress and think she is cool, despite what her reputation may say. And that’s fine, even if it’s a silly attempt at this career reboot, but it doesn’t make the series any better.
The big hook of State of Affairs isn’t just that Charlie is a hard-partying analyst and the President’s daily briefer, but that there is a larger, overarching conspiracy that provides the series’ mystery. Charlie’s fiancé Aaron (Mark Tallman) was killed in a terrorist attack; Charlie’s fiancé also happens to be the President’s son. Charlie has to deal with day-by-day (and the series’ week-to-week) conflicts (in the pilot, she has to rescue a kidnapped American doctor who, improbably enough, happens to look exactly like Aaron because the writers of this show have no idea what the word “subtle” means), but she also has to deal with the lingering post-traumatic effects of literally watching the man she was going to marry get murdered in front of her. A therapist tells Charlie that she is repressing some serious memories of the attack; Charlie responds by going to the bar.
One of the most frustrating aspects of State of Affairs — and all of these similar, often political shows about troubled, tortured women haunted by inner demons — is that they tend to go the same route with these characters. A woman is sad, or is mourning, or whatever, so she must self-medicate with booze and sex. There is no such thing as a woman who simply likes to drink or simply likes to have sex; it is always a manifestation or some deeper and more fucked-up issue within the character, which is itself a reflection of some lazy and contrived storytelling within the writers room.
On top of that, there are problems within the show’s actual narrative. It should be engaging, but it just isn’t. The twist doesn’t exactly land, the mystery is exhausting from the beginning, and Charlie’s overwhelming desire to avenge the death of Aaron doesn’t feel as urgent as it should be (partly due to Heigl’s wooden delivery of the trailer’s/pilot’s most dramatic lines: “I am going to find every last person who had anything to do with the death of your son and I’m going to end every single one of their lives” — a line spoken to the President as they stand in a graveyard, no less). State of Affairs is your basic middling thriller, one that doesn’t make the case for Katherine Heigl’s return to the small screen, or even for its own existence.