White House Plumbers is an A-list, star-stuffed, prestige retelling of the Watergate scandal, which might sound familiar to viewers of last year’s Gaslit, another A-list, star-stuffed, prestige retelling of the Watergate scandal. Even with Julia Roberts as its star, Gaslit got lost in the avalanche of great television that continues to arrive, and White House Plumbers may share the same fate. Here, the mood is more satirical, and it veers into slapstick, although it tries to balance that with a strand of serious family and personal drama. It has a slick elegance to it, but it never quite feels as if it pulls the many elements together successfully.
The Veep showrunner David Mandel directs, which should give some idea of the acerbic tone it aims for. The obligatory “based on a true story” note that opens the show cheekily points out that “no names have been changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty”. Over five episodes, it follows the inept misadventures (and that’s putting it lightly, although, surprisingly, the series does occasionally allow space for an interpretation of the pair as quirky goofs) of the Nixon operatives E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy.
Even in an era of Oscar winners commandeering the small screen, the cast is impressive. There are frequent moments of “Ah, it’s them”, as the stars keep on coming. At one point, Kathleen Turner takes centre stage, as the notorious lobbyist Dita Beard, shipped off to hospital to keep her away from the White House. Judy Greer is Liddy’s wife, Domhnall Gleeson is White House counsel John Dean, and Mad Men’s Rich Sommer and Kiernan Shipka dust off the period costumes once again.
However, it’s all about Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux. Harrelson is the former CIA agent Hunt, who was “un-hireable when the agency dumped you”. He begins the series in a depressed state, reduced to churning out soul-sapping copy for a public-relations firm, and is someone who has strong opinions that he expresses with gusto. He rants about how Time magazine is “propaganda”, while his family falls apart around him. Lena Headey is his wife, Dorothy, an active CIA asset, who asks him to “try not to be such an asshole” while pleading with him to take some responsibility for his chaotic children. As Liddy, Theroux wears a grand moustache and kipper tie, or they wear him. He is a violent geyser ready to blow at any moment. He takes his job very seriously indeed and his favourite LP is a collection of Hitler speeches, which he likes to play at dinner parties, as his terrifyingly obedient children watch on.
This is brash and crass. It opens with the second of four Watergate break-in attempts, and the emphasis is on how terrible these “plumbers” – so-called because they are brought together to “fix the leaks” coming out of the White House – actually are. They get locked in. They leave incriminating films in cameras. They have the wrong tools (“the right tools are in Miami”). Their disguises are terrible. The bugs they leave behind turn out to be inoperable. Liddy calls black ops “black bag”, to the hilarity of the CIA stalwarts he is dealing with. Liddy is not a man who enjoys being laughed at, although the schemes he tries to pitch to Dean are frequently absurd.
Its attempts to be a jack of all trades sometimes make it a master of none. The pace is meandering, which is odd, considering there is so much happening, and it doesn’t pick up steam until well into episode two; Watergate non-aficionados may not make it that far. Theroux turns the volume up to 11 as Liddy, while Harrelson has more depth to find, with a more rounded backstory of family strife and money troubles. There are nods to current populist rhetoric, particularly in some of Liddy and Hunt’s more provocative statements. “It’s just you and me against the entire radical left. Sisyphus had it easy,” grumbles Hunt. “Do not lecture me on patriotism, friend. Let the record show that Gordon Liddy shits red, white and blue,” barks Liddy.
Headey seems most at ease, playing a woman at the end of her tether. “Is any of this nickel-and-dime, cloak-and-dagger stuff necessary?” she asks Hunt, wearily, as the family careers towards another crisis. But, in the end, I found that White House Plumbers didn’t satisfy. It seems to lack a clear identity or a clear sense of what it is. It looks the part, and the talent involved is undeniable, but somehow the chemistry is off and the parts don’t fit together. These on-screen dirty tricks just aren’t quite dirty enough.
White House Plumbers is on Sky Atlantic