Things to Do

“State of Affairs” Vs. “Madam Secretary”: Which Should You Watch?

Decide between two new Washington-set TV shows with a few simple formulas.

Photograph of Heigl via NBC; Leoni by David M. Russell/CBS.

Despite Washington-set shows being snubbed at this year’s Emmys, the trend of sexing up government jobs continues apace. Looking to piggyback on the smash successes of Veep, Homeland, and Scandal, networks are offering two new series for the fall centered on high-powered women. NBC’s State of Affairs, beginning in November, brings Katherine Heigl back to the small screen as Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, a CIA analyst who advises the President on crises around the globe. Oh yeah, and she used to be engaged to POTUS’s son. CBS’s Madam Secretary—premiering this Sunday, September 21—stars Téa Leoni as ex-CIA agent Elizabeth McCord who’s suddenly thrust into the national spotlight when the Secretary of State dies in a plane crash and the President, an old friend, taps her to take over. So which should you tune in for? Below, we have a few formulas for understanding what each show has to offer. (Check back soon for our recap of Madam Secretary’s first episode.) 

If you want: Scandal’s eye-candy wardrobe PLUS Homeland’s authority-bucking, slightly unstable protagonist

Try: State of Affairs. Heigl’s character wears spike heels, leather jackets, and hoop earrings—and has a very Carrie Mathison-esque habit of drinking too much and picking up strangers at bars. 

If you want: West Wing-style political machinations MINUS the lightning-speed patter

Try: Madam Secretary. Téa Leoni’s drawling delivery seems as though she was aiming for gravitas but overshot and landed on “just took a muscle relaxer.” 

If you want: Veep’s woman-in-the-White House aspect MINUS the often harsh humor

Try: State of Affairs. Alfre Woodard brings her stern, inscrutable presence to the table as the “First Customer,” as Charlie’s team nicknames her—and as the mother of Charlie’s (supposedly) deceased fiancé. 

If you want: House of Cards-style visual flair MINUS the, you know, lawmaking

Try: State of Affairs. While the pilot sees Charlie receiving mysterious texts that pop up as bubbles onscreen, she’s far too busy defusing crises almost single-handedly to have much time to spend courting votes from congressmen.

If you want: Veep’s cast of quirky, recognizable supporting characters PLUS a slightly more family-friendly vibe

Try: Madam Secretary. Wings star Tim Daly plays Leoni’s character’s husband, Henry McCord (who, it’s heavily hinted, will probably cheat on her at some point), and Bebe Neuwirth is her largely unimpressed chief of staff, Nadine Tolliver. House of Cards alum Sebastian Arcelus and Body of Proof’s Geoffrey Arend also appear as staffers. As a bonus, Leoni’s character appears to have a (mostly) functional relationship with her two children. 

If you want: Homeland’s conspiracy theories linked to mysterious deaths PLUS Veep’s antagonistic male coworkers PLUS Scandal’s hyper-competent heroine known for thinking outside the box

Try: Either. Early impressions suggest Madam Secretary will be more focused on smaller-scale, human stories, while State of Affairs goes for big, splashy drama. Either way, it’s a safe bet that both series’ main characters have to deal with far less paperwork than their real-life counterparts.

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.