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'State Of Affairs': Television From The Precise Middle Of The Barrel

Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) meets with President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard).
Michael Parmelee
Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl) meets with President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard).

The best and worst thing I can say about the new NBC drama State Of Affairs is the bottom line: if this is the kind of show you like, you might like this show.

Formally conventional in every way — if you watch it with the sound off, it's the weighted average of all network dramas that have aired in the last ten years — State Of Affairs follows Charleston Tucker (Katherine Heigl), a CIA agent who heads up the team that puts together the daily briefing for the president, played by Alfre Woodard. (This briefing, called "the book," gives the show structure much like a case of the week does on a lawyer or detective show.)

But like a lot of television that follows women in important positions of authority, State Of Affairs spends a lot of time on the drama and mess of Charleston's personal life. A year ago, her fiance — who happened to be the president's son — died in Afghanistan during a terrifying shootout for which she was present, and ever since, a traumatized Charleston has been stiff-arming her therapist, drinking, and having a lot of sex with people she doesn't know.

There's something interesting about the way State Of Affairs is trying to marry some very conventional things about broadcast drama with certain things imported from cable. Charleston's sex life and a couple of raunchy (for broadcast) comments are intended to bind her to a more daring style that isn't really possible to execute on NBC, as is a shot of her walking topless away from the camera. It feels like nudity but isn't, feels like swearing but isn't, feels like strong sexual content (as the cable labels would say) but isn't. She's operating in a tradition of (mostly male) antiheroes, up to a point.

The problem is that point. The show cannot actually commit, at least in the pilot, to Charleston's unlikability; it suggests over and over that she's just sad, angry, blocking out her feelings, having sex and drinking to cover her pain. She is never in danger of not being a Good Person, and what has made characters like Don Draper and Walter White and Carrie Mathison so potent is that it was okay if you didn't think they were Good People. Good But Sad People are more sympathetic, but can be much less interesting, than possible Bad People.

What you wind up with here is a kind of half-baked version of everything the show is trying to be: it's a half-baked spy show and a half-baked character study and a half-baked political drama. It feels neither good nor bad: it's just present, average, and sometimes diverting. It's not hard to imagine this show having its fans; Heigl is perfectly fine despite having a pretty anemically written part. But it's hard to imagine people adoring it in large numbers.

One of the tests I sometimes apply to new shows is whether, if I had four or five episodes, I'd watch anything more than the pilot. With this show, there's enough of a grabber in the story of the death of Charleston's fiance that I might have watched one or two more on an otherwise unoccupied Wednesday evening or something like that. Again, it's right in the middle: I wouldn't dread watching more of it. I wouldn't go out of my way to watch more of it.

If I had a system to calibrate shows on a scale of negative to positive 100, this is the show I'd use to set where zero was. The problem it has is that there are so many shows now that manage better than a zero that it's awfully hard to make a case for watching.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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