‘Do you consider yourself sexually irresponsible?” a worried therapist asks Charleston Tucker at the beginning of “State of Affairs,” the new drama premiering tonight on NBC. “Occasionally,” Katherine Heigl’s character admits, as we flash to scenes of her knocking back tequila and bringing home a stranger. Anyone who watches enough television will know what this means. Charlie is dark, she’s difficult, she’s complicated—all because she sleeps around and drinks to excess and has an only-on-TV name like “Charleston Tucker.”
Despite the made-for-TV shorthand, the show doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. In the months since NBC first sent out the episode this summer, the pilot lost some of its more memorably terrible dialogue. (“Total slob in my personal life, total sniper in my professional one,” was how Charlie described herself, in a line sadly cut from the updated version.) But if the camp has been dampened, so has its direction: the plot of this spy thriller is neither as delightfully bananas as “Scandal” nor as earnest as this fall’s other woman-in-Washington drama, Tea Leoni’s “Madame Secretary.” It’s something like “Homeland”-for-dummies, with louder action sequences and a de rigueur conspiracy plot.
A CIA analyst responsible for briefing the president every morning, Charlie is still mourning the death of her fiancé Aaron in an attack in Kabul that she witnessed. Aaron was also the son of the president (played by the underused Alfre Woodard), giving POTUS a reason to trust her even when she’s blatantly ignoring orders. Charlie is coping with her grief through reckless drinking, reckless sex, and trying to bring the terrorists who killed him to justice. You know, usual TV stuff—she’s Carrie Mathison, with PTSD substituted for bipolar disorder.
Heigl’s career has been in free-fall for years, as the former rom-com queen earned a reputation, in both the industry and the media, for being rude, ungrateful, and difficult. But even playing a character labeled a “PITA—pain in the ass” by her co-workers, Heigl doesn’t bring that prickliness to the role. She’s unpleasant—“You’re good-looking. And old,” she tells a new colleague”—without any abrasive charm. Instead, the show lets her sex life stand in for character development. (Aaron Sorkin pulled a similar move on “The Newsroom” last season, showing Alison Pill’s Maggie meeting men in hotel bars as shorthand for emotional damage.) “State of Affairs” has it both ways—show a woman unabashedly own her sexuality, while making clear it’s something that needs to be fixed. It's a muddled message, for a muddled show.