Four years too late and watered down for network television, Carrie Mathison, err, Charleston “Charlie” Tucker (Katherine Heigl) first appears in NBC’s new espionage thriller, State of Affairs, trying to keep her therapist at bay. The C.I.A. analyst responsible for the president’s daily intelligence briefing, Charlie is intuitive, fearless, and unwilling to be tied down: One year ago, her fiancé, Aaron (Mark Tallman), died in a Kabul terrorist attack, and she’s spent the time since drinking hard and sleeping around, desperately seeking solace. “You’re repressing something,” her therapist remarks. “You’re making omissions from your memory of that day.” Charlie rebuffs this sentimental overture to focus on her comfort zone, the grim universe of American foreign policy, and the pilot fitfully sketches the outlines of an effective procedural. Ultimately, though, State of Affairs is as banal and imprecise as its title, especially when it comes to Charlie herself.
Heigl, best known for her bubbly turn on Grey’s Anatomy and a recent spate of romantic comedy flops, returns to primetime melodrama to play “one of the most obnoxious creatures, male or female, currently roaming the planet,” as a C.I.A. colleague describes her—and it’s clear from the outset that Heigl lacks the necessary gravitas to carry it off. The premise of State of Affairs is no more thin, on the face of it, than that of Homeland or Madam Secretary. But against Claire Danes’s fervid depiction of Carrie Mathison’s struggle with mental illness, or Téa Leoni’s warm, compelling performance as good-hearted Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord, the shallow psychology underpinning Charlie’s “obnoxious” sensibility proves deeply unsatisfying. “I’m sad, so I binge drink, fuck dudes, and generally save the world” offers little by way of nuance, and Heigl, left stranded without her exuberant comic persona, muddles through the underwritten heroine routine as though it were a punishment.
Indeed, despite the fact that Aaron was also the late son of President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard), despite the fact that Charlie works with a team of crack analysts for the Justice and State Departments, despite the fact that the series cooks up a veritable fisherman’s stew of minor characters (a Secret Service agent, a Syrian defector) and subplots (anonymous text messages, the one-year anniversary of the attack in Kabul), State of Affairs offers such tepid characterization of all concerned that it comes to be a craven facsimile of the laudable rage for strong, female-driven dramas.
That said, the series holds out the promise of a solid, if unspectacular, network procedural. As Charlie balances the impending beheading of an American doctor in East Africa against speculative intelligence that might lead to the killing of the terrorist behind Aaron’s death, she finds herself suddenly squeezed out by her boss’s competing agenda. Though it’s far from credible, the subsequent interlude—in which Charlie, suspended from duty and ordered detained, eludes capture, procures a classified file from a loyal member of her team, and calls in a favor—is speedily paced and genuinely compelling, unconcerned with cultivating the faux seriousness that permeates the rest of the first episode. State of Affairs, like Charlie, might take a page from the therapist’s notebook and stop trying so hard to repress its instinct for the lurid, the superficial, and the fun: Obnoxiousness may seem the mark of “serious” television, but in this case it’s just a bore.