“State of Affairs,” a nicely polished but plenty bananas CIA drama premiering Monday on NBC, wants its lead character, a White House briefer played by Katherine Heigl, to be the perfect offspring of “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope and “Homeland’s” Carrie Mathison, with paternal genetic material supplied by an anonymous donor (“24’s” Jack Bauer).
It wants the frantic-manic adrenaline rush of “Homeland” mixed with just a hint of the wink-wink confidence that comes with “Scandal.” This new show is a deadly serious enterprise that believes it’s about national security but is, in fact, about a broadcast network wanting to do everything the premium cable channels get to do, minus the nudity.
Barring that, “State of Affairs” seems happy to lift only what it needs from the steamy Book of Shonda (Rhimes, that is), and for the most part, the result is not entirely objectionable, unless you are among those objecting to shows that stereotype Islam or hint at taboo sex acts between strangers in prime time.
In any event, “State of Affairs” is a welcome upgrade for NBC, which has shown itself able to put forth fairly good action dramas (“The Blacklist,” “Hannibal”) but, as recently as last spring, was trying to sell viewers a dumb show (“Crisis”) about the terrorist kidnapping of a busload of very important Washington teenagers. With “State of Affairs,” we’re in noticeably improved territory, thanks mainly to an all-in performance from Heigl, a “Grey’s Anatomy” alum making her return to television after some ups and downs both on the movie screen and in celebrityville.
Here, Heigl stars as Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, the president’s top briefer at the CIA and yet one more rendition of the highly fictional, highly-strung-but-gets-it-done Washington woman. Like “Homeland’s” Carrie, she sometimes relieves her stress through alcohol and casual sex.
“Do you consider yourself sexually irresponsible?” asks Charlie’s therapist in a scene at the beginning of the first episode — a scene that is no doubt meant to convey to the viewer TV’s refrain that a successful Washington woman nearly always has a dark or troubled side. (She comes with or acquires a slew of personal problems, or has a history of mental illness, or, as with ABC’s “Scandal” lately, must endure the daddy of all daddy issues.)
“Yeah,” Charlie says, as the scene quick-cuts back and forth between her therapy session and her latest roll in the high thread-counts with a hunk she meets at a bar. “What’s wrong with that?”
“There’s a lot wrong with that,” the female therapist replies. “And it makes me worry about you.”
Charlie cuts the session short (with a flippant remark about orgasms) because there are more pressing concerns: Each morning she blows into Langley at 2 a.m. to orchestrate her team of whip-smart intelligence briefers. Together, in a flurry of Aaron Sorkin-style repartee that turns out to be one of the episode’s highlights, Charlie’s team prepares the morning intelligence report that she — after changing into even higher heels — delivers in person each morning to President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard).
There’s quite a bit of recent history to be told in flashback here, as a prime-time viewer these days must surely expect: A year earlier, Charlie accompanied then-Congresswoman Payton on a delegation trip to Kabul, where their motorcade was ambushed. In a confusing hail of bullets, both women managed to escape, but Payton’s son, who also happened to be Charlie’s fiance, was killed. Payton (a war veteran; a detail that is much more intriguing than the fact she is a black female president) went on to win the election, relying on Charlie to bring her no-nonsense, unfiltered information from the CIA.
And that is why Charlie goes to therapy: Her doctor is trying to help her sort through the grief and possible post-traumatic stress, while also possibly coaxing Charlie to recover some of the details she has repressed about the attack.
Both Charlie and the president are fixated on finding and killing terrorist leader Omar Abdul Fatah, whom they believe was behind the attack. You’ve met Fatah before, in many other showbiz guises of the post-9/11-era villain; Hollywood will never stop putting forth this particular specter of the most-wanted Islamic extremist, nor does it have any motivation to stop, so long as actual headlines deliver on the promise. Only recently have shows like “State of Affairs” and “Homeland” made timely reference to the Islamic State and other threats that come in the form of movements, rather than lean on the trope of an Osama bin Laden-style mastermind, but it’s a hard habit to break. Carrie and her colleagues on Showtime’s “Homeland” are also in pursuit of yet another such figure — Haissam Haqqani, the terrorist leader holding Saul Berenson prisoner somewhere near the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, but let’s be honest: Haqqani’s no Abu Nazir, and these characters rarely rise above a cliche.
And so we keep sending our super-strong, emotionally edgy women after them. In “State of Affairs,” strolling through the cemetery after a one-year anniversary memorial of the attack that killed her fiance, Charlie assures President Payton that the CIA will find Fatah.
“No, Charlie,” Payton says. “I’m not talking to the CIA analyst. I want to hear from the woman who loved my son enough to bind her life to his; the woman who was going to give me my grandchildren. I want to hear from her. What’s she gonna do?”
“I am going to end every single one of their lives,” Charlie replies.
“That’s my girl,” the president says.
Ridiculous dialogue, yes, but squarely within the realm of the present sisterhood. In addition to Olivia and Carrie and Charlie (if “State of Affairs” lasts in the ratings), there is the blackhearted Claire Underwood and the uncomfortably ambitious (and not-so-dearly departed) investigative reporter Zoe Barnes of Netflix’s morosely corrupt “House of Cards.”
Lately they’ve all been testing our boundaries (and inspiring extensive commentary) when it comes to “good” and “bad” behavior as it is perceived through our personal filters of modern womanhood and feminism. Did “Homeland’s” Carrie essentially abandon her baby for her career obsessions? Did she really just seduce Hassani’s naive young nephew to turn him into a CIA operative? Why do these actions upset us if a woman character does them as opposed to when a man does them?
“There are only wrong choices, and it’s like I’m finally seeing them now for the first time,” Carrie said on Sunday night’s episode of “Homeland,” once she had recovered from a psychotic episode brought on by the tampering of her medications and returned to the more manageable anxiety of the situation room, with its drone cams and trigger fingers and barked obscenities. “Nothing good can happen in this f------ -up world we’ve made for ourselves.”
There’s something gratifying about seeing Carrie excel at her job even when it seems she has no business being in the thick of it. She challenges our notions of capability and performance.
Elizabeth McCord, the highly capable secretary of state played by Tea Leoni on CBS’s interesting but uneven Sunday-night drama “Madam Secretary,” stands somewhat apart from the other Washington women holding our attention.
Acting almost as a kindred spirit of C.J. Cregg, the beloved White House press secretary and chief of staff played by Allison Janney on “The West Wing” (a type of tough and reliable Washington woman fans still long for), McCord seems to have what could be viewed as a relatively sane experience of motherhood and marriage, as far as one-hour dramas go. Normality could in fact be “Madam Secretary’s” undoing in the ratings game. Her situation room and diplomatic emergencies are just as frantic as those of her make-believe peers, but her personal life simply isn’t bonkers enough to lure more viewers.
It’s difficult to compare and contrast this particular group of characters without sounding like a student grasping at a cheap thesis statement the night before the term paper is due. Often, the best response to these shows, other than to celebrate the increase in shows about women, is to revel in their collective ability — freedom? permission? — to be every bit as flawed as the male characters so often associated with Washington’s spies, spooks, dirty players and other anti-heroic rogues.
In “State of Affairs,” Heigl’s Charlie offers a facsimile of the Carrie Mathison-style problem employee who is nevertheless the smartest person in the situation room — which invites the predictable scorn of a colleague who fears her and loathes her: “You must be one of the most obnoxious creatures, male or female, currently roaming the planet,” he tells Charlie.
“I might be less so,” she replies, “if I didn’t have to do everyone’s job for them, Steve.”
(one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC.