When this show started three weeks ago, it was rightly panned by many critics who did not find it meaty enough to keep their attention and they were right. The Public Slate expressed the hope that this sadly mediocre show would improve over time. There seemed to be many reasons to have this hope, including a stellar cast and weighty enough subject matter to challenge fine actors like Alfre Woodard to give their best performances. So far, State of Affairs has not quite risen to the challenge of everyone’s high expectations, but at the very least with this week’s episode it has slowly improved from just mediocre to just average.
Like many shows before it, State of Affairs tackled an “issue of the day” with its story of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The situation is supposed to remind people of the same real-life tragedy that sparked the hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The story is sympathetically told with Charlie, Heigl’s character, earnestly trying to do everything she can to save them while President Payton, the ever graceful Alfre Woodard, stuck in a diplomatic chokehold and unable to assist. The opinion of the writers is quite clear in this episode: sometimes there is nothing you can do even when you know it is the right thing to do. The fictional president says pretty much that in a conversation with her chief of staff. There is of course a happy ending to the situation which involves a night mission and some verbal sparring with the Chinese.
In order to avoid spoilers, no more can be said about that part of the episode, but that is okay since it was not the best part of the episode. As has been previously noted by Public Slate reviewers, the show tends to show flashes of something better than what it is. This was apparent in the first episode and it is still working in its favor now. The one-line critiques of the real world are fascinating in that they do not make up a substantial part of the show, but are captivating nevertheless. For instance, while discussing what to brief the president on, Charlie’s staff note that Russia has sent more rocket launchers across the border (which border need not be said). One staffer asks, “How do you say ‘sanctions aren’t working’ in Russian?” The answer: “Crimea.” That kind of pointed barb is enjoyable and spot on as far as the real world goes.
The real meat of the show, however, are the little digs of sexism. At the start of the episode, Charlie is hit on by a barista at a coffee shop who says, “You’re definitely not a housewife” (because pigeonholing women into prepackaged stereotypical roles is sexy). Charlie replies with, “Thank you, I think.” That is enough to get the audience thinking about sexism, which crops up again and again in this episode. The new director of the CIA has already shown that he will not be likable, but his irritation at being kicked out of the Oval Office while Charlie briefs the president is palpable. Charlie, who had been ignored while the director gave his briefing, gives a perky and smug little, “Bye, guys,” for which she later apologizes. The groundwork is being set not just for a titanic battle between Charlie and the director, but a certain amount of cultural critique is also being created.
It is important to note than in a male-dominated “world” (as people are constantly reminded politics is), Charlie’s little dig at the director was pretty mild. Had it been a man in the same position, there likely would have been no apology at all. In fact, the CIA director shows a startlingly thin skin when faced with opposition from a woman. It is the director who comes off looking stupid in that situation, not Charlie. There are other critiques of sexism in the episode as President Payton deals with it in her role, but they cannot be discussed without some big spoilers. Suffice it to say that she handles sexism as an obstacle to getting anything done and prevails in her own inimitable way (she also gets to shoot a gun while she does it). The plot of this episode is nothing to write home about, but at least other parts of the show are giving evidence of some promise. Overall, State of Affairs is improving slowly from being a mediocre spy drama to being an average spy drama with some occasional wit. There is hope for it yet.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury