Katherine Heigl isn’t here to make friends. Especially not amongst anyone who actually does her fake job.
State of Affairs, Mondays at 10/9c on NBC.
One year ago, CIA analyst Charleston1 ‘Charlie’ Tucker (Katherine Heigl, back on the small screen) watched her fiance die in a terrorist attack and now walks a tightrope between self-destructive behavior and her high-powered job. Said job is leading the team that compiles the President’s Daily Briefing, a collection of prioritized intelligence notes, and personally relaying the rundown to the president.
Said president (Alfre Woodard) is her dead fiance’s mother.
The headliners here are Heigl and Woodard of course. David Harbour is his usual solid wall of charm and authority and it’s great.2 The whole project, though, hatches from the mind of director Joe Carnahan who’s best known for intricate, meditative films that should win more acting awards than they do (Smokin’ Aces, The Grey) and most recently known for producing NBC’s big hit The Blacklist.
Who is State of Affairs For?
I hope no one at NBC thought this was for anyone in/around the intelligence community. A friend at DHS mentioned he pre-complained about this show to actual PDB staffers and I’m guessing every word he uttered without seeing a moment of the pilot was spot on. This is one of the least realistic depictions of intelligence operations, executive branch functions, or Washington geography put on film this century.
It’s also one of the most awesome fake depictions of all of those things put on film this century, gloriously charging ahead with every skillfully impulsive decision made by either the writers or a main character. It’s network Homeland with a more pumping soundtrack. When State of Affairs moves, damn does it move. It has the back and forth of an episode of The West Wing crammed into half the time3 and a third of the characters. It’s patently ridiculous for an analyst to brief on some of these matters, let alone effectively make decisions as to which intelligence to act upon, LET ALONE continue to operate as the world’s greatest spy once suspended by the director of the CIA but oh my gawd was it fun to watch Heigl make the moves and then make the case armed only with her wits and iMessage.
What Doesn’t Work
I have two big – huge! – concerns that boil down to whether State of Affairs can sustain its pace.
First, the mix chosen for the pilot – crisis of the week, plus tortured history, plus opportunities to Take it Personally, plus some secrets lurking about 2 and 3 – could go bad so quickly, and most scenes that weren’t spycraft-based bordered on maudlin and definitely dragged. The gal who parties like a guy trope doesn’t often wear well, but it’s fine here, especially when coupled with Charlie’s competency and comfort with her job. The problem is the counterpoint where her lip needs to quiver over her dead fiancé. When they figure out that balance, the self destructive behavior will feel less forced/flippant4 and the emotional moments won’t cause eye rolls.5 Or maybe they’ll ditch the emotion and have everyone pedeconference while zipping off one liners; I would not complain. Look, this is a pilot that included a jarring flashback opening sequence that was completely devoid of feeling, then had the exchange “No good can come of this.” “Good doesn’t have to come. I do.”6
Two, I’ve liked watching Carnahan’s work over the years – especially the performances he gets out of actors – but I’ve never gotten particularly involved in his stories. They strike me as short stories if anything – each film is like a meditation on a concept or a note; often fast moving, typically very beautiful, often devoid of a clear beginning, middle, and end. None of these are strikes against his movies; what it means for sustaining a network TV season is far less clear. I didn’t realize he produced The Blacklist until watching this show – but his concept-over-plot and performances-over-…plot are on grand display there.
And just a quick shoutout to the inaccuracies rife in this first episode; I didn’t mind them per se, but State of Affairs could easily lose its slender grip on reality if it’s not careful. There is no way Charlie keeps her security clearance with her drinking and sexing, or her job with her choice of outfits, OR GETS INTO THE WHITE HOUSE WHEN SUSPENDED.
Does This Pass the Bechdel Test?7
Maybe technically barely in episode one. Charlie is the focus here and has two other women in her life – President Woodard and another analyst on the PDB team – and the dead fiancé is brought up by both. When the talk is purely shop, it’s still about men, so maybe we’ll get our technical pass on the test once there’s a female terrorist in the mix. The looming question – going back to the balance point above – is that the man responsible for the fiancé’s death is an important U.S. target; every aspect of Charlie’s job even tangentially related to the target will raise questions, spoken or un, about her objectivity. Keeping the focus on Charlie being damn good at her (completely unrealistic) job should prevent this from becoming Alias, at least in terms of gender roles.
If you work in Washington, do not tune in. Period. Probably ever. You will break your television set. With everything.
- Yes, really. ↵
- Ditto James Remar, who I want on my speed dial. ↵
- We’ll get to why that is momentarily. ↵
- Although it’s fairly enjoyable at the moment. ↵
- The less spoken about emotions in emotional scenes the better they worked. ↵
- Sunglasses. YEAAAAAAHHHHHH! ↵
- 1. Two named female characters 2. have a conversation 3. about something other than a man. ↵
- Which was plenty – great numbers on the night and a steady hold for the second half of the hour, especially when compared with Castle. ↵