“State of Affairs,” NBC’s glossy new entry into the “Homeland”/espionage market, is a show we’ve seen before. For all the critic talk of unoriginality, it seems tantamount to national treason for a show to linger in forged territory. Yes, Katherine Heigl’s (“Grey’s Anatomy”) troubled Charleston Tucker is a saner facsimile of Carrie Mathison, with self-medicating habits that miraculously don’t put a dent in the whip-smart, unflappable and hyper-competent demeanor we associate with all cogs in the government machine (oh, if only). And sure, Tucker has the supple leather jacket collection of a Florentine slaughterhouse, or maybe just Kalinda Sharma, but despite its recycled tropes which TV fans will quickly spot, Alex Hawley’s “State of Affairs” is a half-decent show.
State of Affairs
Mondays at 10 p.m.
Heigl stars as a CIA analyst responsible for assembling the President’s Daily Briefing, a top 10 list (the listicle trend has obviously even infiltrated the White House) of the day’s most serious crises. As revealed in a cringe-inducing flashback, Tucker’s fiancé Aaron Payton (Mark Tallman, “Grand Theft Auto V”) was killed in a terrorist attack three years ago in Afghanistan. Of course, it’s more muddled than that, with an anonymous texter threatening to reveal what really happened. Unlike the standard procedural format, the larger conspiracy backstory immediately intermingles with the day-to-day operations, with Tucker juggling the conflicting agency interests of saving a kidnapped doctor (Gavin-Keith Umeh, “One for the Money”) in Kenya and a tracking team’s potential ability to kill Omar Abdul Fatah, the terrorist who killed her fiancé. However, Tucker’s decision-making impartiality is held suspect by the Chicago doctor’s uncanny resemblance to her dead fiancé, and her subsequent choice to leave the Fatah development out the Presidential Daily Briefing leaves Tucker vulnerable to an office politics coup.
“State of Affairs” is tasked with introducing fast-paced action into the quieter corridors of power, where combat is more of the Machiavellian than machine-gun variety. The pilot episode paces itself well, lithely moving between its White House, CIA and Kenya locales just enough to keep the show from feeling claustrophobic. After all, it is smart enough to recognize that its audience power isn’t drawn from a dense cerebral atmosphere like “Damages,” but from flashier bells and whistles. “State of Affairs” needs the formalistic support of sinister texts projected on the screen in neon font, suspenseful music and flashbacks that wouldn’t look out of place in a single-shooter video game, because its star, while capable, is not captivating.
It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is sidelined for the marquee name. For example, a very compelling Alfre Woodard (“Desperate Housewives”) plays President Constance Petyon with alternating maternal compassion and calculating decisiveness, but there simply isn’t enough of the talented actress. The briefing team Tucker heads is also well cast enough to have a natural chemistry that the show doesn’t tap into, especially Maureen James (Sheila Vand, “Argo”), Tucker’s slightly misanthropic best friend who Vand levies with a dynamic acerbity that Heigl’s performance lacks.
Regardless, if viewers need an hour of familiar entertainment, “State of Affairs” is equipped to fill the void. But if art is to do anything more than competently splice together a handful of tropes and topical references, “State of Affairs” fails.