Katherine Heigl is back on TV, everyone, after leaving "Grey's Anatomy" way back in the last decade because she didn't like what was being written for her, as she said at the time, or because she wanted to spend more time with her family, as she said later. Whatever! (She was right the first time, though it's not the sort of thing you're supposed to say, especially about a hit show for which you win an Emmy.)
"State of Affairs," which premieres Monday on NBC, is her way back to the small screen after "Knocked Up" and some movies Judd Apatow didn't direct, and presumably Heigl likes what's being written for her here, because she's an executive producer (as is her manager-mother, Nancy Heigl). As CIA analyst Charleston "Charlie" Tucker, she certainly gets more than one note to play — indeed, playing every note ever written seems to be the plan.
Charlie is the person who brings the "book" containing the day's most important security issues to Constance Tucker, the president of the United States, whom TV has taught us to call POTUS. Here she is played by Alfre Woodard, as great an actor as any this country has produced and a woman I would vote for if she ever wanted to run.
Besides taking care of the whole free world, Constance also would have been Charlie's mother-in-law had not her son been killed in Afghanistan in a flashback at the beginning of the pilot, right before Charlie's eyes. One residual effect of this imperfectly remembered terrorist act has been to turn Charlie into Carrie Mathison in an early episode of "Homeland," picking up men in bars and living close to the edge, although she still manages to show up for work every day at 2 a.m.
"Do you consider yourself sexually irresponsible?" asks her therapist.
"Occasionally," says Charlie, an analyst who prefers not to be analyzed. "What's wrong with that?"
But we know she's sad, really.
Dr. Izzie Stevens, Heigl's character in "Grey's Anatomy," was created in part to show that beauty could be a burden as well as an advantage in a world that judges books by their cover; those blue scrubs did go some way to equalizing the cast, without really fooling anybody. There is no such dissembling here: Charlie, whose creamy skin and toned body the camera directs you to notice, heads off to the White House in stiletto heels and a jacket that a mysterious texter describes as "punk chic." Even the title is saucy.
I like Heigl, and there are scenes in which the series does work for me, when it seems to be showing you something about how real people do a real job in a real world. The actress puts on her glasses, ties up her hair and grabs a coffee cup to denote seriousness, yet it is easy to buy her in these more casual moments, especially given quiet, excellent support by Sheila Vand, Cliff Chamberlain and Tommy Savas as her fellow (though hierarchically inferior) co-analysts.
But the show also wants her to be a kind of ace secret agent and dark noir antiheroine — hello again, Carrie Mathison. (A number of cooks had a hand in this broth, and it shows.) And the more amped-up the action and the more tangled the weave of its web is revealed to be, the more hilarious "State of Affairs" becomes, with cutaways to a super-soldier with the lantern-jawed name Jack Dawkins (Derek Ray) and Dennis Boutsikaris as the acting CIA director, whose every blink and utterance denotes mediocrity.
Finally, Woodard, speaking to Heigl of their shared tragedy, is made to speak these lines: "I'm not talking to the CIA analyst. I want to hear from the woman who loved my son enough to bind her life to his, the woman that was going to give me my grandchildren. I want to hear from her. What's she going to do?"
"Constance," Charlie replies, "I am going to find every last person who had anything to do with the death of my fiancé and your son and I am going to end every single one of their lives."
"That's my girl," whispers the president.
'State of Affairs'
When: 10 p.m. Monday