The fall season has seen a surge of women in charge in prime time, but this new guard still traffics in old clichés
Television needs another catch-a-terrorist CIA thriller as much as it needs another catch-a-bogeyman superhero romp. But NBC’s State of Affairs tries hard to be more than just a sensationalistic gloss on global politics; it wants to be a flash point in the cultural conversation about gender politics, too. Katherine Heigl plays Charleston Tucker, a spy with a boy’s name and a ballsy job: Every day she produces a book for the president (Alfre Woodard) prioritizing threats to the nation. At many points in the pilot, executive producer Joe Carnahan (The Blacklist) baits the audience into reacting to an unabashedly powerful, complicated, sexual woman as if it were a Rorschach test for sexism. The fact that she’s played by Heigl, a polarizing star, both enhances and dilutes the provocation. The whole experiment is rigged in her favor, actually: Charlie’s world is Taylor Swiftian with male haters, and she’s got dead-boyfriend grief to process anyway, so just chill with your judgy, okay? Welcome to Shake It Off: Zero Dark Thirty Edition.
State of Affairs arrives late and loud to a season abundant with shows about women in authority or chasing it. Madam Secretary tracks the ripped-from-the-headlines trials and tribulations of a rookie-year secretary of state, Elizabeth McCord, played by a wry and dry Téa Leoni. Bad Judge sticks a delightfully game and gamy Kate Walsh on a cancellation-bound sitcom about an iconoclastic gavel banger with a rock & roll lifestyle named Rebecca Wright. Some incumbent dramas are promoting women up the chain of command to elevated effect. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) now runs her own spy shop on Homeland, while Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is angling for state’s attorney on The Good Wife. The new women’s work of prime time: truth, justice, and the American way of skulduggery.
Progress? Kinda. Both Bad Judge and State of Affairs promised bold expressions of womanhood, albeit garbed in clichéd heroism, the rebel reformer who plays by her own rules and thinks outside the box. We got that, plus more of what we don’t need (in women or men) — the emotionally arrested vocational savant. ”I’m a slob in my personal life and a sniper in my professional life,” declares Charlie with pride. The lady doth protest too much. Her hookups aren’t randy-dandy healthy but reckless bids to numb psychic pain. (Bad Judge also took some of the fun out of Rebecca’s unrepentant bawdiness by saddling her with relationship issues.) I’m all for deconstructing the idol of put-together, do-it-all, have-it-all wonder-womanhood, but Charlie is an appealingly imperfect character in search of better writing. She lacks the unique complexity of Homeland‘s Carrie or The Good Wife‘s soon-to-depart Kalinda (Archie Panjabi), a sniper on the job and in bed.
The surge in strong women has also brought with it an uptick in dickish men wired to resent them. The CIAs of Affairs and Homeland are lousy with such cutouts. On Secretary, ?eljko Ivanek plays the bullying chief of staff, threatened by McCord’s personal relationship with POTUS. This antagonism speaks to a reality where sexism often comes coded or unwittingly expressed, but it also feels like a cheap ploy to endear us to characters by victimizing them. The use of infinitely patient men with enlightened regard for female authority invites similar suspicion. But I do enjoy the role reversal of Tim Daly’s supportive super-spouse to Leoni’s secretary. He’s an Aquinas-quoting religion prof prone to sincere pillow talk such as ”I like women in positions of power.” Now, that’s a progressive characterization.
Watching these shows, I am confronted by my own sexism. I want to criticize Affairs and Secretary for launching with stories about their leads rescuing hostages. Both allowed personal feelings to inform — or cloud — their judgment. With McCord, the captives were kids, and she’s a mother. With Charlie, the hostage resembled her boyfriend. Would ”sniper” pros really succumb to such sentimentality? Better question: Would I be as hard on them if they were men? I don’t know. The Charlies and McCords of TV make for refreshing, relevant, but flawed wish-fulfillment fantasy. They should be better. So should I.