Depending on which actress-in-a-new-drama you ask, it's been a great, or trying, fall season. Viola Davis must feel she's hit every kind of paydirt collaborating with Shonda Rhimes to get as three-dimensionally realistic a black woman as anyone could imagine tucked inside the 2-D law-school fantasy that is How To Get Away With Murder. By contrast, I imagine Tea Leoni howls at her agent every time she gets a new script for Madam Secretary and sees that it's just like last week's episode: world crisis, stomp down the White House hallway to solve it, then go home to Sensitive Husband and Sensitive Kiddies.
Enter Katherine Heigl, who's competing against her own public image in one of the last fall shows to premiere, State of Affairs. Ever since she left Grey's Anatomy, Heigl has had to contend with reports that she's "difficult," code for more unpleasant insults directed at women with opinions about the industry they make money for. The best thing about State of Affairs is that instead of trying to mollify her detractors by playing someone sweet and cuddly, she goes full-bore-difficult as Charleston "Charlie" Tucker, a CIA analyst who delivers the daily threat assessment briefing to the president, played in State of Affairs by Alfre Woodward.
The pilot, directed by Joe Carnahan, does a good job of setting up the unrepentant nature of Heigl's Charlie. Having lost her fiancé a year ago in a fuzzy-flashback fire-fight in Afghanistan, Charlie is self-medicating her misery with booze, sex, and working too hard. When her therapist says nothing good can come of that, Charlie says with a defiant smirk, "'Good' doesn't have to come — I do." Carnahan, who's done wonders turning The Cookie Dough That Speaks, aka James Spader, into a tough-guy star in The Blacklist, must have had a good time collaborating with Heigl to bring to the screen a tough woman who doesn't apologize or feel guilty about not expressing her grief "appropriately."
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If State of Affairs sometimes goes overboard signaling that our hero is one tough customer — really, it's a bit much to have Charlie and her CIA colleagues banter about world threats as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Back My Bullets" plays beneath them — the show does know how to modulate tension. And Affairs sets up a potentially unique dynamic. Charlie has a relationship with Woodward's President Constance Payton that transcends White House safekeeping. Had Charlie’s fiancé — Payton’s son — lived, this Prez would have been her mother-in-law, and both women are pissed that this did not come to pass. They vow privately to each other to kill the terrorists involved in the fiancé's death. Subject that to legal scrutiny and I'm pretty sure it's something for which Fox News would make a dandy impeachment argument.
The pilot was reworked to, among other things, slip in one prominent mention of ISIS, but going forward, State of Affairs would do well to be careful about being too tied to ever-changing current events, or inviting too many comparisons to Homeland. Because at this point, I'm more enthused about watching Katherine Heigl do the weekly work of creating a complex new character than I am dutifully tuning in every Sunday to see if Claire Danes can rescue herself from the crazy-lady shenanigans in which her producers now mire her. Sometimes it pays to be "difficult" in real life, lest you come off even worse on TV.
State of Affairs premieres Monday, Nov. 17 at 10 p.m. on NBC.