“State of Affairs” focuses on one of those faceless behind-the-scenes operatives serving the President of the United States, which is appropriate, since various issues at the periphery are more interesting than the show. The intrigue ranges from Katherine Heigl’s return to TV after her bitter “Grey’s Anatomy” exit to showrunner Ed Bernero’s pre-premiere departure to the question of whether NBC can successfully shift “The Blacklist” to Thursdays, making at least half of this scheduling move pay off. Then again, the brief on the series would be “What if ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘The Blacklist’ had a baby?” which explains the timeslot.
Heigl plays Charleston Tucker, the CIA analyst who prepares the president’s daily briefing, or PDB, a threat-assessment document made famous (or infamous) by the one George W. Bush received headlined, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
But Charleston’s backstory is just beginning. She’s still smarting over the death a year earlier of her fiance during a terrorist incident in Kabul. Oh, and did we mention said fiance was the son of the president, and that chief exec is played by Alfre Woodard, in a sort of “See you, and raise you” milestone among fictional TV Commanders in Chief?
Actually, POTUS doesn’t show up until about halfway through the festivities, after we meet Charleston (Charlie, to her friends) having a meaningless one-night stand — her mode of self-medication when not neutralizing threats. Or, as her therapist puts it, engaging in “reckless personal behavior.”
Directed by “Blacklist” alum Joe Carnahan, who worked on the script with Susan Morris and credited series creator Alexi Hawley, the slightly reworked pilot sets up a major (and timely) conundrum: Charlie can try to save a U.S. doctor taken hostage by terrorists in Africa, or risk a shot at nailing the mastermind behind her fiance’s death. The decision puts her at odds with the CIA director (guest Dennis Boutsikaris), a classic pig-headed bureaucrat.
Beyond “The Blacklist’s” general vibe, there are more direct parallels to other current shows — CBS’ new hour “Madam Secretary,” and lesser ones to “Homeland” and “Scandal” — right down to the furrowed brows as D.C. functionaries watch military operations via satellite links and grainy night-vision photography. As a bonus, Charlie also begins receiving cryptic anonymous messages, suggesting someone very well connected knows an awful lot about her past, including what really went down in Afghanistan.
In some respects, given the nondescript nature of the team with which Heigl works, “State of Affairs’” prospects will boil down to a test of her appeal. And while she’s perfectly adequate in the role (while standing a rather distracting full head taller than Woodard in their scenes together), that doesn’t feel like enough compensation, even with the conspiratorial hints in the mysterious text messages popping up onscreen.
NBC has graced the show with a lead-in from “The Voice,” which certainly should help generate sampling. But far from any inspiration, this show feels not just like it was created by a committee, but a Senate subcommittee at that. And in TV terms, that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.