Well, now we know what it would look like if "Homeland" Mad Libs came to life on our television screens.
"State of Affairs," which wants desperately to be a mainstream, broadly appealing version of the Showtime program, is just the latest high-profile offering to lay bare the problems that afflict so many broadcast network dramas. In trying so hard to do a lot and display a great deal of energy, these shows frequently come off as exhausting and silly, in part because the people caught up in these wan but hyperactive stories are usually one-dimensional at best and faintly ridiculous at worst.
How and when to fruitfully steer into the ridiculous is an art form learned by listening to one's gut, but many new dramas are too distracted and distrustful to learn that lesson. Watching "State of Affairs" made me wonder if the gut of every person associated with this show was filled with nothing but Alka-Seltzer and Mylanta.
Though things have been somewhat dire for a while now on the broadcast network front, not every new or new-ish one-hour show is having difficulty at the moment. In the realm of network genre fare and light comedy, things are more or less fine: Just try to peel me away from "The Flash," "The 100" and "Jane the Virgin," -- shows that knew their tone and goals from the get-go -- and though I'm the first to admit that "Sleepy Hollow" is having some issues, I remain on Team Anti-Apocalypse.
Speaking of underdog teams on the run, it's satisfying to see that Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." has improved to the point where it's legitimately satisfying. Another ABC show, "How to Get Away with Murder" is trying hard to lean into its overripe melodrama, and it's watchable, but there's not a lot of there there -- not yet, anyway (someday I may remember the names of the show's various law students, but today is not that day). At least it's got more going for it than the studiously inoffensive, formulaic "Forever," which is not digging an especially deep ratings hole in a Tuesday slot that has been snakebit for ABC, so that's something, I guess.
"Gotham" has struggled mightily to find a way out of its myriad problems, and in its tightly focused and well-paced Nov. 3 episode, it broke free from its exposition addiction and tonal inconsistency. Alas, it didn't last. It returned to a dopey crime-of-the-week and dispiriting information dumps one week later. Seriously, could the people on that show please stop telling us what they are doing as they are doing it? As a property derived from a comic book, you'd think "Gotham" would understand that showing is more important than telling.
I bring up the bat-drama because, though "Gotham" and "State of Affairs" inhabit wildly different narrative realms, they suffer from similar problems. The new broadcast dramas that are thriving are judicious about just how much they try to pack into individual episodes: They've nailed their proportions of character, story and theme. Even a wobbly installment or wonky subplot doesn't detract from the fact that there's an overall air of confidence to the storytelling -- and it's that sureness that allows audiences to relax and enjoy the fine-tuning and grace notes.
"Gotham" and "State of Affairs," on the other hand, want to do way too much and end up flailing mightily in a bunch of directions at once. Both these dramas have talented casts, but they wildly oversell and narratively underdeliver, as if they're hoping no one will notice that there's not a lot of steak under all that expensive sizzle.
Both programs might as well be x-rays that reveal the manic fears of broadcast network executives. Neither show trusts their audience to retain any information longer than 15 seconds, so the characters repeat key points again and again. You can get away with that kind of blunt-force bludgeoning when you've got a hambone like James Spader of "The Blacklist" to distract the audience. But too often, "Gotham" lets its hammy elements run riot and clash with its more sober side, so at times, the drama feels like a tonally incoherent hybrid of four different shows. "State of Affairs," on the other hand, comes off as a more prim "24" and a less intelligent "Homeland," which is a Venn diagram nobody particularly wanted to see.
It's a shame, because I'd love to watch Alfre Woodard as the president -- or as anyone else -- on my TV every week, and Katherine Heigl is also a natural fit for this medium. But like CBS' "Madam Secretary," "State of Affairs" tries to rip international incidents from the headlines and weave these events into the characters' personal lives in ways that feel hamfisted and obvious.
There's also the maniacal pace of the "State of Affairs" pilot, which tries to cram three seasons of "Homeland" into one episode of television (there's even a jazz solo!). The show failed to convince me that Heigl's character -- a CIA analyst who prepares the president's daily briefing -- is actually good at her job, nor did any of the other events feel plausible or even plausibility-adjacent. I'd have settled for an enjoyably bonkers ride, but "State of Affairs" takes itself far too seriously for that.
"State of Affairs" is not quite a pulpy thrill ride, not quite an addictive melodrama and not quite a serious, searching drama. It's not truly suspenseful enough to be a latter-day "24," nor is it smart enough to hint at the depths that "Homeland" and "The Good Wife" did in their pilots. There's an obligatory ongoing plot about something nefarious, but at the moment, several dramas on USA do that sort of thing far better than either "State of Affairs" or "Madam Secretary."
Both "Gotham" and "State of Affairs" would certainly benefit from downsizing. Pack young Bruce Wayne off to boarding school; he and the young feline only need to turn up once or twice a season (if that). Focus tightly on the concurrent ascensions of James Gordon and the Penguin. Make Barbara Gordon less of a cable-wife nag-drag or just jettison her weekly scene entirely. Donal Logue and Ben McKenzie's performances haven't seemed as if they're appearing on different shows in recent weeks, which is a hopeful sign. And of late, "Gotham" has employed some terrific directors who have given the decaying city the arresting and foreboding air it deserves. If the show itself displays the kind of laser focus and economy some of its directors have shown, maybe the saga of Jim Gordon could evolve into the next "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
As for "State of Affairs," it is, like "Madam Secretary," a well-intentioned show that wants to be Important but has no actual ideas to rest upon, and like the CBS show, it stars skilled actors who deserves better than the confused puree they're mired in.
"State of Affairs" airs Monday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.