‘State of Affairs’ Flops

Katherine Heigl returned to network television last night in the 10 p.m. time slot with her new vehicle, State of Affairs, in which Heigl (also listed as an executive producer) is terribly miscast as a top CIA operative, Charlie Tucker, who was plucked from her work as a field agent and is now tasked with compiling and delivering the daily intelligence briefing to the President of the United States.

Heigl, an alumnus of ABC’s venerable Gray’s Anatomy, where she appeared as Dr. Izzie Stevens from 2005 to 2010 is no more convincing as a secret agent than she was as a doctor. First of all, at 35, she is way too young to be an assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Worse, she’s not nearly shopworn enough to be an senior CIA operative. (Valerie Plame was the exception, not the rule.) Better yet, she was engaged to marry an idealistic young doctor who also just happened to be the son of the president of the United States. The First Son, Aaron Payton, played in flashbacks by Mark Tallman, gets shot to death before the first episode begins in a brutal terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, while on a humanitarian mission, which might be a more merciful exit than may be in store for the other actors who have hitched their wagons to this turkey.

Note to casting directors: you have your work cut out for you, casting Hollywood hotshots as secret agents. Whether it is Jennifer Garner in Alias, or Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, leading lady types are simply too pretty to be secret agents. Rule number one for secret agents is that they have to be eminently forgettable. While Heigl may not be in the same class as Garner and Chastain (they can act), she definitely does not meet the forgetability criteria.

Now, Heigl’s character, Charlie Tucker, works for Constance Payton, the country’s first black female president (this is, after all, an alternative universe), adequately played by veteran thespian Alfre Woodard, who is one of those actresses you see all the time without ever remembering her name, and is really much better than the material she has to work with here. She is however, very short, and while we might accept a black, female president after Barack Obama, Americans don’t usually elect short presidents. It doesn’t help that Heigl is officially listed at 5′ 9″ while Woodard is only 5′ 3″; Presidents of the United States don’t like to be loomed over by their aides. It doesn’t look presidential in real life, and it certainly doesn’t look presidential here either.

According to the plot, Charlie serves as the assistant director of the CIA charged with delivering the daily briefing that determines who might live and who might die on the basis of the allocation of the government’s resources. In this position, she has the ability to determine on her own which bits of information the president gets, and which get left out of the daily briefing book. Show of hands. How many viewers believe that one person controls the contents of the daily briefings for the President of the United States?

Better yet, Heigl’s character is running her fiefdom with the express purpose of hunting down and executing those responsible for her fiance’s demise ,something that, of course, happens all the time in covert operations circles without anyone noticing or taking corrective action. (That’s sarcasm, by the way.) In the real world of covert operations, everyone is always looking over everyone else’s shoulder, which is why it is so difficult to get things, like tracking down Usama Bin Ladin done.

It gets worse. In the first episode, aired yesterday on NBC in same time slot where the top-rated NBC melodrama The Blacklist usually appears. Charlie Tucker re-tasks a covert ops hit squad from a takedown of a long-sought terrorist operative to a rescue mission aimed at rescuing an American doctor from beheading by a different terrorist group. While it is not beyond the pale of human understanding to believe that a munificent government might indeed divert a hit squad from a terrorist takedown to a rescue mission, no one sends covert ops teams out without extensive planning. Missions don’t get planned and executed in a matter of a couple of hours. The Special Teams are brave, not stupid, and the government of the United States isn’t that munificent.

There are other sticky points. Syrian general Abu Kahn – that country’s security chief – manages to infiltrate the seventh floor of the CIA’s Langley headquarters with a covert cellular phone which the screenwriter believes can penetrate the layers of NSA-designed encryption and detection systems, without anyone noticing. (They read our mail, but they can’t read their own?) This is quite impossible, according to [name redacted], one of the men who actually designed the NSA system. The general, it seems, wants to meet with the President of the United States, face to face, and has appealed to the Director of Central Intelligence Agency to make that happen. (Security chiefs from other countries don’t meet with Presidents of the United States.)

All of this would be excusable, if Heigl could act, but she walks flat footedly through the plot. In her defense, the script she’s working from is simply too weak for anyone to be successful in her role but, since she’s an executive producer, she has to take the rap for that too.

A number of devices work against the pilot. The excessive use of acronym-laden government-speak, combined with fast paced almost staccato readings of what are really throw-off lines make the dialogue hard to follow.State of Affairs just continues to get worse. Under Heigl’s instigation, a CIA covert team (operating illegally in the territory of the United States) intercepts the Syrian general and diverts him to a secret location by posing as a Secret Service Dignitary Protection team, preventing him from meeting the President and divesting him of his covert cellular telephone, which has secreted in his hat. The producers of this lemon also violate all kinds of security protocols, such as when Heigl, currently on suspension and actively being sought for detention by her own agency, walks into the White House, and right into a meeting in the Oval Office, without being intercepted. Really?

Most objectionable of all, however, is a really stupid decision to post text messages purportedly being sent and received through Charlie Tucker’s government-encrypted cellular telephone in difficult to read balloons hanging in mid-air. Note to the executive director: this technology does not exist and, if it does, it should not be encouraged to proliferate.

The bottom line on this mid-season replacement for The Blacklist is that Blacklist aficionados will watch this turkey only because there’s nothing else to watch on Monday nights at 10 p.m. until the James Spader vehicle comes roaring back. The show may turn in decent numbers, because people are curious to see Heigl on screen again. She has a definite presence. Heigl is fun to look at, but she isn’t James Spader.

Entertainment Weekly reports that the overnight numbers for State of AffairI featured a 2.2 rating in the crucial 18-49 year-old voting block, which equates to 8.6 million viewers, putting it behind Gotham (2.3) on Fox but ahead of ABC’s Castle (2.0), CBS’s NICS Los Angeles (1.7), and Fox’s Sleepy Hollow  (1.5).  In the same time slot last week, The Blacklist pulled  a 2.5 share and 9.75 million viewers which was itself way off the 3.5 share the NBC offering earned for its second season opener, reflecting 12.5 million viewers. Early reviews for State of Affairs have been mixed, with some reviewers noting that Heigl’s reputation as a difficult person to work with reinforces her character’s similar trait, a case of art imitating life. In reality, however, Heigl’s never been as bad as Charlie Tucker is.  Charlie kills people. Heigl just talks a little trash now and then.

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