'State of Affairs': TV Review

Katherine Heigl in "State of Affairs"
Kind of messy, actually. That's the state of affairs here.

The Katherine Heigl star vehicle shows up late, without buzz, and isn't at all convincing that she's a powerful player in the White House

Even though NBC touts on its website that State of Affairs marks Katherine Heigl's return to TV "in the role of a lifetime" — she's back on the small screen for the first time since Grey's Anatomy and a spotty film detour — the network really isn't doing her any other favors in support of the show.

For starters, State of Affairs has a crazy-late fall (or is it winter?) premiere, on Nov. 17, when most every other new show is well into its run. And, despite having plenty of time to provide critics with additional episodes, NBC has held fast with the pilot only.

A pilot that has generated no buzz. A pilot that is, at best, flawed, and, at worst, messy-bad.

In the battle of the "Is that supposed to be inspired by Hillary Clinton?" shows, CBS has already successfully launched Tea Leoni as a powerful secretary of state in Madam Secretary, while Heigl's role as influential CIA analyst Charleston Tucker (ugh, the name is not helping, either) leaves her, upon a full viewing, looking less Clintonesque and more Heiglesque.

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Translation: State of Affairs is unapologetically a star vehicle for Heigl. She's glammed up constantly — undercut with nerdy glasses for effect here and there — and allowed to not only be someone whom the president has too much faith in, but also someone who knows how to have a good time when she's off the clock (hard drinking and random emotionless sex to loosen up!). In addition, Heigl gets to carry the double burdens of grief (her fiance was apparently killed by terrorists) and revenge (she basically has the one job in the world where she can single-handedly exact vengeance for his death). So: power, personal flaws, grief, a killer instinct — yep, this is a star vehicle.

And if you doubt that for even a second, Alfre Woodard plays the president in State of Affairs and she almost never feels as important as Heigl's character. (Woodard's President Payton trusts Heigl's Charleston Tucker not only because Tucker is an ace analyst but also because her son was Tucker's fiancé — boom, shocker).

The lack of additional episodes is definitely a cause for concern, coming as it does on the heels of State of Affairs losing its original showrunner — never ideal. If creator Alexi Hawley doesn't have the power to nudge NBC into proactive motion, you would think that executive producer Joe Carnahan — who does have the power, having directed and written a couple of episodes of NBC megahit The Blacklist while also serving as executive producer — might encourage the network to kick-start the kind of chatter necessary to launch a hit show these days. No matter how many NBC promos there are of Heigl telling Woodard with conviction that she's going to kill the terrorists responsible for her fiance's death, it's really not enough. State of Affairs remains, just days before it premieres, a series almost no one is talking about (and thus anticipating).

A boffo collection of extra episodes might have helped, of course. Unless what comes next is not, in fact, very boffo.

The pilot is not likely to set the hook. It opens with a surprisingly poor action sequence detailing how the president's son and Charleston's fiancé was killed. (The scene is shot several different ways since Charleston's shrink believes she's hiding something crucial about the chain of events — she is.) Outside of that claustrophobic and repetitive scene, the pilot spends a lot of time being Katherine Heigl's Star Vehicle — and a curse befalls all such entities. Why? Because star vehicles have to be — wait for it — all about the star, and thus have precious little time to introduce supporting characters, even if one of them is played by the magnificent Alfre Woodard. That's troubling. And, in this case, not as flattering as perhaps Heigl imagines.

The notion that powerful men plan counter-terrorism operations, watch them succeed with efficiency and then retreat to a life of over-the-top late-night antics to mask their pain is already a tired trope. That a woman is doing the same thing is, well, given so many recent examples of it, like The Honorable Woman, similarly unoriginal.

We certainly get lots of Heigl. The show opens on her (kind of hilariously, actually) shaking her head side-to-side as she talks to her her shrink. Then we see Charlie (see? The name, it just causes problems no matter how you use it) managing a young group of analysts who idolize her and her connection to the president. Charlie/Charleston and her team is tasked with putting together the President's Daily Briefing (PDB, people) of risks around the world. Then there's some drinking and wildness. Then there's some calm seriousness. Then drama and tears. Then some tough-talk badassery. All in the name of getting viewers to come back.

But we see Heigl in so many roles that we're cut off from seeing her be just one person, who does one thing very well, and who is riveting. In short, Charleston is no Raymond "Red" Reddington in The Blacklist. Whereas James Spader absolutely owns that role — he is the show, though it has improved with supporting characters — Heigl is perhaps one too many things in State of Affairs. She doesn't get to own and cultivate her personality a la Spader's Reddington because the show is too busy showing you what a star she is.

Of course, if we'd seen more episodes, who knows? And doesn't that make you wonder what NBC is really thinking?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter:
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