So this is her comeback.
Katherine Heigl’s return to television, State of Affairs, which debuts on NBC tonight, is the latest stage in Heigl’s ongoing, humiliating apology tour of America. The show, notionally about a tough CIA analyst who’s working to avenge her slain lover, is as much an attempt by Heigl to resuscitate her own flatlined reputation. Time will tell, but it seems Heigl may have more work to do.
The actress’s rise to prominence, as a star of Grey’s Anatomy and the lead actress in Knocked Up, was seeded with the elements of its own decline. Heigl was charmingly plainspoken in a way that made her perhaps the best interpreter of Shonda Rhimes’s dialogue we’ve ever seen. That plainspokenness also resulted in a series of P.R. fiascoes including her criticizing the writing of both of her starmaking projects, Grey’s for not giving her good material and Knocked Up for perceived sexism. Attempts to rebuild her reputation via magazine covers in which Heigl apologized to America seemed somehow ungenuine, or less nourishing than picking apart Heigl’s statements. (If Knocked Up’s sexism prompted Heigl to speak out, how could she go on to promote the arguably far more offensive movie The Ugly Truth?) Heigl’s performance in State of Affairs is her first since an independent film in which she appeared failed to meet its crowdfunding goals for distribution.
This has all been told before, a story that unfolded so long ago that recent schadenfreude over Heigl appearing in a ZzzQuil ad or her suing the pharmacy chain Duane Reade for tweeting photos of her shopping there felt past its expiration date. But even though Heigl’s perceived rudeness or “ingratitude” is an old narrative, it’s inflected every aspect of her publicity tour around the show. In every interview, Heigl is forced to contend with the old stories about her. She said in a Facebook Q&A: “Of course just like any human being I’ve made mistakes and unwittingly or carelessly spoken or acted but I always try to make any wrong right.” She told a group of reporters the same at a press conference ostensibly intended to celebrate her show.
The tentativeness around Heigl’s image problem inflects State of Affairs, a show without the courage to be much of anything. The show it is most evidently inspired by, Homeland, took advantage of Claire Danes’s relative lack of a public profile to build a lead character who was, from the get-go, a ball of contradictory impulses and all-too-human frailties. Heigl’s character on State of Affairs, Charleston Tucker, is a bundle of would-be-endearing quirks from her name on down, from the utter nobility of her animating passion (getting back at those who killed her love interest, who also happened to be the president’s son) to the mild snark she bats around idly with her coworkers to her lovely but unrealistic wardrobe of body-conscious dresses and leather jackets. She goes to a bar to pick up a stranger for sex, but the show frames this not as character trait but tragic biographical detail: Charleston only uses her vices as a manner of distracting from the loss of the true hero she deeply loved.
State of Affairs represents an attempt to frame a star in her best light: The only consistent thing about Heigl’s character from moment to moment is that when she’s in the frame, everyone else is totally focused on her. It’s as though if by telling us Charleston was all things — weak and strong, crude and high-minded, compromised and noble, incapacitatingly heartbroken and wildly competent — every viewer might be able to pick out an an aspect of Heigl they’d liked in the past, and she’d return to prominence.
But so far, Heigl’s project only reminds viewers, sadly, of how good she’d been on TV in the past — when she played a real character with concrete motivations, one whose every misstep didn’t need to be bolstered by an equal and opposite positive quality. If Heigl wants to get back in America’s good graces, she needs to be unafraid to go there. It may unfair to read State of Affairs as a bid to be liked again — but in the absence of a real character, Heigl, and her persona, is all we have to grab onto. That persona may not be deserved, but Heigl gives us nothing, here, to prove it wrong.