Things You Aren’t Seeing: We’re full of TV docudramas these days. The Dropout, The First Lady, The Girl from Plainville… if it made news or inspired a podcast, it’s undoubtedly on TV right now, with major casts playing famous real-life characters (and a handy Emmy) to earn nominations).
So I won’t blame you for barking at Starz’s Gaslit, which premieres this Sunday at 8/7c; I’ve seen the first four episodes, especially considering the Watergate story is reimagined from the days of All the President’s Men.
On the other hand, Gaslit deftly avoids the flaws that so many TV docudramas make, choosing a funny, amusing approach that helps it stand out from the crowd.
Gaslit stars Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, the socialite wife of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, and is based on the podcast Slow Burn. It begins five months before the Watergate break-in (Sean Penn).
When White House attorney John Dean (a polite Dan Stevens) begins preparing a covert campaign against Nixon’s Democratic opponents, he pulls in a tough talker named G. Gordon Lidy (Shea Whigham).
And then everything goes to hell. We all know that Watergate was a pretty grim historical event, but Gaslit turned it upside down by treating the break-in with a squad of Keystone Kops as a clumsy comedy of errors directed by a rabid maniac.
As a sweeping twist of fate in the biggest political scandal of the century, lies build upon lies and excuses are made.
Gaslit is written by Robbie Pickering and executive produced by Sam Esmail, and it mixes the intellectual, awkward air of Mr. Robot with a sprinkling of Veep’s foul cynicism. It’s shamelessly awkward, and it deftly avoids the monotonous historical lessons that weak docudramas like Showtime’s The First Lady dish out.
First and foremost, it depicts a story in which the characters speak like real creatures rather than wax statues in a museum. It also throws in some ridiculous humor, such as when Watergate thieves discuss the benefits of a windbreaker over a jacket while they are in the midst of a heist.
It has also put together a stellar group of eleven actors with real skills. Roberts plays Martha, a sweet-voiced scholar who enjoys being in front of the camera, and this part makes the most of her inherent glow.
In a bald wig and a thick suit, Penn is unrecognizable as John Mitchell, yet he still sees humanity in him, and he and Roberts have a wonderful relationship as husband and wife. Along the way, notable personalities like Chris Messina and Patton Oswalt appear.
But it’s Whigham, a veteran TV veteran who’s worked on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Perry Mason, who shines as Lidy: fiercely masculine and insanely insecure, with a penchant for casual violence. (“You’ve never had the pleasure of tasting your blood.”) At one point, he insults a Mitchell employee, “I can tell.”
When Martha is placed under house arrest shortly after the break-in she won’t tell the press, Gaslit takes a sinister turn. The sudden clash of vocals is shocking, and these unpleasant moments don’t fit in with the rest of the series. (It doesn’t help that Martha’s kidnapper is portrayed by Brian Geraghty, who also appears on ABC’s Big Sky as a nasty kidnapper.)
But, for the most part, Gaslit is a wickedly hilarious and satirical take on a notorious period in American history that none of these men are particularly happy to be a part of.