NEW YORK — “Homeland” and “The Americans” have made believers out of skeptics who said shows about intelligence had gone the way of the Robert Ludlum novel.
Now the trend is spilling over to broadcast. At its upfront presentation in New York on Monday, NBC touted a clutch of new shows with intelligence themes.
In "State of Affairs," Katherine Heigl channels her best Carrie Mathison as a CIA higher-up charged with briefing the commander in chief, in a series that kicks off Mondays in November. "All the President's men are nothing compared to her," the tagline read in a teaser shown Monday. We soon see Heigl’s character making urgent calls on terrorists as the stakes are raised in rooms filled with furrowed brows. Needless to say, she does all this while also juggling a difficult personal life, Danes-ishly.
In "Allegiance," a midseason show from thriller film director George Nolfi and “Homeland” veteran Avi Nir, Hope Davis plays half of a couple of former Russian sleeper spies in a show that looks to tap into some of that "Americans" magic. Davis’ character and her hubby (Scott Cohen) find themselves in a pickle when their son, an idealistic CIA agent, seems to uncover their identities; the teaser at the presentation Monday shows Cohen's character pleading with Davis' as she looked to turn herself in to save her son.
Touted drama pilot "Odyssey" most directly goes to the "Zero Dark Thirty" vibe. Starring Anna Friel as the surviving soldier of a group of apparent military heroes who mysteriously are attacked and killed, the show puts Al Qaeda and U.S. government and military conspiracies front and center.
All of this comes as NBC itself finds success with freshman series "The Blacklist," the intelligence-themed James Spader show and the criminals his cool-as-iced-tea Reddington helps track down.
On Monday the network was keen to put the series front and center. It announced a midseason move to Thursday and a coveted post-Super Bowl slot. It even taped a bit with Spader incorporating ad buyers at the presentation to help it play to the room. And for good reason: The show has been the biggest success of a ratings-revived NBC.
All the intelligence-themed cable hits — not to mention real-life issues involving the CIA, Snowden and the rest — also make the genre a natural. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. CBS struck out this past season with "Intelligence," and even a smash like “Homeland" has sometimes had trouble keeping up the momentum; there are only so many double crosses and shadowy conspiracies you can traffic in before viewers grow tired.
Network television offers another challenge — namely, mainstream acceptance of what are often anti-government themes. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that War on Terror plots were considered anathema in Hollywood. As my colleague Joe Flint wrote in a Twitter conversation about “Odyssey," "Shows about American soldiers betrayed by their country typically don't spell ratings gold.” Still, with intelligence thrillers the rare genre that can yield both commercial and critical raves, they’ll keep trying to mine for it.