Imitation is the sincerest form of television, and anytime a new show becomes a hit, you can guarantee that another network – usually several networks – will be racing to copy it. With “State of Affairs” – either the last new fall network show, or the first mid-season replacement, depending on your point of view – the question isn't whether it's imitating another show, but which one.
Is it a belated attempt to do a network-friendly version of “Homeland,” with a Carrie Mathison type who's reckless and emotional and has lots of sex, but who isn't certifiably crazy? Is it NBC's attempt to repeat its own success last year with “The Blacklist” (whose Monday at 10 timeslot “State of Affairs” takes over tonight), only under the mistaken belief that people are really watching for Liz and not Red? Or a bit of both?
Katherine Heigl returns to TV (after an uninspired stretch of movie “romantic” “comedies”) as Charleston Tucker, the absurdly-named CIA analyst whose daily job it is to brief POTUS on the 10 greatest threats to the United States. The process of how those threats are identified and ranked – and how Tucker has to deal with pressure from various forces (including a smarmy CIA interim director, played by Dennis Boutsikaris) to add or remove things from “the book” – is interesting, and the few glimpses we get of Charleston and the other briefers doing their primary job are the liveliest part of the “State of Affairs” pilot. (Despite the late premiere, NBC only made one episode available for critics.) Those scenes suggest a darker and more dangerous version of “The West Wing,” where we get all the wonkiness through a filter of terrorism and spycraft. The characters believe in the mission of their jobs, but the scary nature of it makes them idealists with a black sense of humor, who try to leaven the scary situations they analyze by telling jokes about them.
But “State of Affairs” – created by Alexi Hawley, but produced by Joe Carnahan, who has stayed with the show as various other producers and writers have come and gone – doesn't trust that Charleston's job is enough to carry the show (or to lure Heigl away from making “The Ugly Truth 2: Truth Uglier”). To the basic set-up, the show adds both personal turmoil for Charleston, who's grieving the death of her fiance Aaron – conveniently, the son of the new POTUS (played by Alfre Woodard at the entertaining peak of her Alfre Woodard-ness) – in a terrorist attack the year before, as well as a conspiracy arc about exactly what happened the day Aaron died.
This kind of mythology storytelling is now obligatory on a show like this, even if it's by far the least compelling part of the show. And the material about Charleston blazing a self-destructive trail through bars and men's bedrooms evokes Carrie's bad behavior on “Homeland”(*), but in a manner designed to titillate at least as much as to illustrate how damaged she is. (When her therapist warns that no good will come of this drunken promiscuity, Charleston smugly replies, “Good doesn't have to come. I do.” Rimshot!)
(*) And for what it's worth, “Homeland” these days tends to be at its strongest – like last night's episode and next week's – the less it dwells on Crazy Carrie being crazy and the more it simply tries to tell a tense spy story.
In terms of the show it's displacing (“Blacklist” returns after the Super Bowl, then moves to Thursdays), Heigl has vastly more charisma than Megan Boone, and significantly less than James Spader, though Woodard and David Harbour (as the president's chief of staff) are instantly better than any “Blacklist” supporting character. In all, it's probably a wash.
Ultimately, my future interest in “State of Affairs” will depend entirely on what kind of show it wants to be when it grows up, and early signs aren't promising. NBC didn't give us more than the one episode, but the pilot has been through a number of changes since the version critics saw in the summer, some involving casting, but primarily playing up the conspiracy and playing down the nuts and bolts of putting together the book.
“State of Affairs” doesn't have to be original to be good, but I'm not sure what good comes of the mixed-up show it is right now.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org