August 11, 2014

THE SKED Fall Pilot Report: NBC’s “State of Affairs”


STATE OF AFFAIRS:  Monday 10PM on NBC starting November 17 – If Nothing Else Is On…

Disclaimer: Network pilots now in circulation aren’t necessarily in their final form. It’s not unusual for pilots to be reedited and re-scored, and in some cases even recast or reshot, before hitting the air. Consider these reports to be guides to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.

PLAYERS:  Star and Executive Producer Katherine Heigl, who developed the series for herself and pitched it to all the networks, hoping to spark a bidding war (which never really happened).  Series creator and pilot director Joe Carnahan, a key figure in the creative path of The Blacklist, for which he’s written and directed.  Showrunner Edward Bernero (a veteran of everything from The Third Watch to last year’s international coproduction Crossing Lines), who joined the series after the pilot.  A supporting cast headed by Alfre Woodard.  NBC’s in-house Universal Television studio.

PREMISE:  Charleston “Charlie” Tucker (Heigl) is the CIA analyst tasked with preparing the President’s Daily Briefing book and then having a sit-down review of the world’s most serious threats with the Commander-in-Chief (Woodard) first thing every morning.  Charlie’s being chosen for this high-level position isn’t an accident:  her fiancee, who died in Afghanistan before her eyes, was the President’s son.  In addition to the crises of the day, Charlie faces bureaucratic resistance, notably from the acting CIA Director (Dennis Boutsikaris), and she’s not sure what to make of his brand-new briefer, Lucas Newsome (Adam Kaufman).   Plus, is there a conspiracy in and around this White House?  You bet–someone with alarming access to Charlie’s top-secret life informs her that her fiancee’s death wasn’t the simple tragedy of war she thinks it was.

PILOT:  The world of State of Affairs is going to overlap quite a bit with the one depicted in CBS’s Madam Secretary, in which Tea Leoni plays an ex-CIA analyst, now Secretary of State, who has to solve international crises every week while dealing with a emerging conspiracy.  (Secretary will have the advantage of hitting screens 2 months before Affairs, which could make the latter look like a copycat even though the shows were developed at the same time.)  On the basis of their pilots, Madam Secretary is going to be the smarter show, with a deeper bench of first-rate cast members to share the burden with Leoni.

State of Affairs, by contrast, is an unapologetic star vehicle (Woodard appears in just a few scenes, and the rest of the cast makes hardly a ripple), and viewers’ opinions about the series will largely be based on what they think of Katherine Heigl in the lead role.  For all the many, many negative things that have been said about Heigl over the past few years, there’s no denying her charisma and ability to hold the camera.  She rose out of the ensemble of Grey’s Anatomy as its breakout star for a reason.  But Heigl has made lots of bad decisions since then–starting with her unpleasant exit from Grey’s–and State of Affairs may be another one.  For all the sensible sweaters and eyeglasses Heigl puts on in the course of the hour, she still doesn’t impress one as a brainy collator of worldwide intelligence.  When she exerts herself to show deeper emotion, mostly when she’s recalling her fiancée’s death, the effect is worse. (Heigl is on much firmer ground doing snappy banter with the rest of her morning briefing group.)  Charlie is clearly modeled after Carrie Mathison on Homeland (although Charlie isn’t bipolar, she also draws a sharp line between her bar-hopping, one-night-stand personal life and her steely competence at her job) and Jessica Chastain’s analyst in Zero Dark Thirty, but Heigl isn’t Claire Danes or Chastain, and she doesn’t do herself any favors by seeking comparison to them.

The pilot, nevertheless, hops along fairly well.  Carnahan, as writer and director, makes good use of the ticking clock from Charlie’s middle-of-the-night arrival at Langley until the morning Presidential briefing, and one advantage of having Heigl at the center of the story is that plausibility is already strained enough that the melodramatic plot twists (fake Secret Service agents!  a spy making illicit recordings in the White House!) don’t feel too out of place.

PROSPECTS:  The fate of State of Affairs is one of the more interesting questions of the fall season.  NBC isn’t debuting the show until mid-November, and with The Blacklist keeping the timeslot warm until then, plenty of viewers will be in the habit of staying on NBC when The Voice ends.  Also, the late start will give Affairs lots of solo attention, far from the freeway of new arrivals in September/October.  That should give the show a strong start.  In the end, though it will be all about Heigl, and whether there are as many people who want to watch her each week as tune in for James Spader.  CBS isn’t repeating last season’s mistake of launching a serialized series in the Monday 10PM hour, and NCIS: LA will be waiting for any refugees who jump off NBC when the change kicks in.  The guess here is that while State of Affairs won’t be the disaster Heigl-haters are hoping for, it won’t get near Blacklist-level numbers either, and the hour will be much more competitive than it was last season.




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."