State of Affairs plays like NBC wanted to remake 24 as a Shonda Rhimes show… and without Shonda Rhimes, it just doesn’t work.

Here’s a show I went in wanting to like. Not because I feel particularly strongly about the career prospects of Katherine Heigl, who years ago torpedoed what should have been the easiest feature-film career launch in a decade (a model-gorgeous blonde bombshell with genuine comedy-chops and a solid background in TV drama) by sort of trashing her own movie as sexist — it was a move which, fair or not, came off strange when she followed with drivel like The Ugly Truth. The fact that Heigl is now limping back to the small screen to try for a reboot doesn’t matter much to me, but I continue to root for State of Affairs‘ creator Joe Carnahan.

The great unsung action talent of present-day Hollywood, Carnahan should’ve been able to write his own ticket after Smokin’ Aces and The Grey but still seems stuck “paying for” the lukewarm reception for his (underrated) A-Team adaptation. His most recent action foray, Stretch, went straight to streaming. But he’s found recent success producing for television, most notably with the hit series The Blacklist, so I wanted to see what his next trick would be.

The pilot/debut for State of Affairs, unfortunately, plays a lot more like a Katherine Heigl comeback vehicle than a Blacklist follow-up. It’s soapy and simplistic (not necessarily bad qualities; this is television, after all), with obvious broad-strokes storytelling and an embarrassing focus on trying to force its main character into interesting-ness via plot beats and backstory while the actress playing her strikes still-ready “iconic” poses and goes about the business of creating repeatable catchphrases and physical nuances that can become fan-favorite “bits” on the series. It’s a star-turn without much else holding it up.

The pitch for this one probably sounded a lot like “What if 24 had been a Shonda Rhimes show?” Heigl is Charleston Tucker (no, really), a CIA analyst who oversees the team responsible for mining the web, security information, covert intelligence and other assorted “chatter” to create the Daily Briefings for various government heads, with Charleston herself reporting to Alfre Woodard as the President. The writers have clearly studied the House model very carefully, from our heroine’s hard-drinking, therapy-attending, casual-sex seeking (the show demands that the audience accept that an insanely powerful Washington power-player who looks exactly like Katherine Heigl has to pull a “cool girl” routine in dive bars to find a hookup) personal-life to the team of quirky underlings to the snappy relationship with superiors.

The Daily Briefing angle is, at least, an interesting way to structure an episodic “problem of the week” show. In the pilot, Charleston has to make the difficult call of whether to leave the possible sighting (in kill-able range) of a wanted super-terrorist (think bin Laden) off the docket in order to not tempt anyone to re-allocate resources better poised to rescue an abducted, scheduled-for-execution do-gooder doctor. At issue is that the super-terrorist in question is wanted specifically for an attack that killed The President’s son — who also happens to have been (wait for it) …Charleston’s fiancée!

Yeesh! “ShondaLand”-wannabe-ism strikes again. Such contrivance. Much soap. Wow.

Of course, Charleston’s rivals within the government don’t agree with her call, which allows the episode to become a walking tour of characters, locations and relationships that will presumably be important to the series going forward: With enraged Defense heads furious enough with her to go to the President directly and freeze her out of the building(s), we’re treated to a seemingly-endless main act where Heigl scurries around D.C. dodging police and texting updates to her employees — at one point outwitting a federal officer by… jumping onto the back of a supply truck and riding it out of harm’s way. We’re also introduced to a mysterious “black ops”-type character (James Remar, so it’s got that going for it) who evidently functions as Charleston’s on-call attack dog.

It’s all quite predictable, in the end: Heigl puts on her defiant/pouty Serious Face from the grimmer episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to defend her intel decision, leading to the doctor’s rescue and an affirming one-on-one with the President — wherein they both agree that they’re still looking to terminate the crap out of everyone responsible for their mutual loved-one’s murder…

…but, since this is a network melodrama, there’s a final wrinkle to contend with: There’s a detail to the mission-gone-awry that killed Golden Boy which Charleston is still concealing from everyone but herself. Her memories of the event (for which she was present) are unreliable and full of holes, which she appears content to alternately dig up with her therapist and fill-in with bar hookups.

I have no idea if this could work as a series long-term. We’ve seen all of this before, and the prospect of seeing a starlet on the rebound isn’t the most enticing angle in the world, even if — yes — it appears accurate that Heigl is infinitely more at home on the small screen. It’s not awful, but it doesn’t connect… which shouldn’t be so difficult when the subjects are war, terrorism and spycraft. Maybe there’s a twist in the offing — is Charleston’s secret that she’s playing for both side? Probably not, but it’d be something — but otherwise it’s a miss.

Bottom Line: State of boredom.

Recommendation: For hardcore fans of D.C. gamesmanship, Heigl and Woodard only.

[rating=2.0]

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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