By Melissa Crawley
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“State of Affairs” is Katherine Heigl’s much hyped return to television. After a few choice words on her departure from “Grey’s Anatomy” and an up-and-down movie detour into romantic comedies, Heigl takes on the role of Charleston Tucker, a CIA analyst in charge of the president’s daily briefing. The “PDB” is a summary of the most important security issues facing the country. “State of Affairs” speaks to our interest in surveillance and is meant to be a comforting statement on how the CIA in conjunction with the president protects us from those who mean us harm.
The show then, is about tracking bad guys with the twist that prioritizing threats against the nation requires careful judgment calls that can be politically and morally dangerous. How Charleston navigates the potential minefields that her decisions create while balancing her relationship with the president forms the show’s main plots. The larger storyline concerns a terrorist attack that killed the president’s son. Charleston was his fiancé and both she and the president were traveling in a convoy with him when it was attacked in Afghanistan.
Charleston’s guilt and suppressed memories of the attack hide a deeper level of involvement which makes the show’s broader story more interesting. On a character level however, she is less interesting. Her defining qualities are that she is aggressive, confident, competent and not afraid to challenge authority. While I appreciate that she’s a woman in charge, there are a lot of women in charge on television these days. What sets them apart is that they are more complicated. “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison battles to stay sane. Elizabeth Keen on “The Blacklist” has so much emotional baggage that it threatens to dismantle her carefully constructed moral code. I could probably write an entire column on the complex layers of the Alicia Florrick character on “The Good Wife.” The point is that all these female characters offer more than Charleston whose depth is easily reduced to a few adjectives.
At least this is the case so far. The show has some potential for complexity in the relationship between Charleston and President Payton, played by Alfre Woodard. The pilot episode sets it up as a partnership as they are committed to justice for Payton’s son. It takes a dark turn when Charleston vows to Payton that she will “end” everyone involved and Payton remarks that her son’s death will make killers out of both of them. Woodard delivers this line with something close to satisfaction which felt out of place for a character that at this point in the series, has little gravitas.
How much you respond to this show I suspect, has a lot to do with your feelings about Katherine Heigl. If you liked her in her other roles, you will like her in this. If you have no opinion about Heigl and want to watch complicated women dealing with professional and personal challenges, there are better choices.
“State of Affairs” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on NBC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.
Stay Tuned: State of Affairs’ is hit and miss
By Melissa Crawley