White House Plumbers–A good effort underway to look at another snippet of Watergate

Review by C.J. Bunce

We’re two episodes into White House Plumbers, and it is your typical HBO drama.  Its True Detectives star Woody Harrelson steps in as the lead character, real-life slimeball E. Howard Hunt.  He’s partnered in a twisted buddy cop kind of way with one of the creepiest real-life villains in U.S. history, G. Gordon Liddy, played here leaning more into his absurdity than his deviousness by Justin Theroux (more known for his voice acting, his accent here sounds just like Phlox on Star Trek Enterprise).  (Theroux, interestingly enough, is the real-life son of a reporter for The Washington Post).  Director David Mandel, writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, and Harrelson and Theroux do not hold back in portraying the duo as the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of Nixon’s criminal schemes, which they were.  It’s a harmless approach, so long as younger viewers don’t pay too much heed to the marketing which bills Liddy and Hunt as the guys that “masterminded” Nixon’s downfall–he did that himself.  White House Plumbers suffers from the same problems as other HBO dramas–it’s thin and wastes time on sex and foul language-filled talking-head banter (somehow that makes HBO more gritty than the networks), including Hunt family drama instead of forward momentum toward the “long national nightmare,” but it’s engaging enough to get viewers to come back for more.  The best part–and what is most likely to get the Emmy for the show–is Kathleen Turner.

If you have read or watched All the President’s Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, or seen the movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, you already know most of the characters.  It’s all true, and the only embellishment is for drama purposes, bits of Hunt and Liddy’s personal life–everything from making presentation boards for Liddy’s crime proposals under the Gemstone project name to the goofy clownish wigs to Liddy’s Nazi leanings, bribes, assassination planning, and documenting all their crimes with a camera.   The series is neither farce nor camp nor parody nor satire.  We can only laugh now because the bad guys lost.  And the dated bits, like the clothes and mannerisms and dialogue, are easy to laugh at now, too.

It’s a bonus that we now know that Deep Throat (Bob Woodward’s infamous anonymous source) was FBI chief Mark Felt, played in the new series by the inimitable Gary Cole.  White House Plumbers is full of scenes played for fun or winks to the audience that knows where this is all heading.  That doesn’t make them any less historical.  Viewers can also see another layer in the story–a reminder of how little the U.S. has learned about electing unqualified, shifty leadership since then, and its easy-to-spot parallels to the 21st century are laid bare for anyone to see and analyze without commentary from the showrunners.

The series is a limited series of only five episodes, and the first two episodes squander plenty of parallel criminal schemes before and after the Watergate burglary.  The main action introduces Oscar-nominated actress Kathleen Turner as International Telephone and Telegraph lobbyist Dita Beard.  Turner dazzles again and demonstrates how brilliant a series starring her as Erle Stanley Gardner’s private investigator Bertha Cool would be.  It probably doesn’t matter whether Beard’s role in the money trail is the most captivating sidebar to spend time on.  Another storyline could run down more of the schemes of John Mitchell, played here more as a tangent by John Carroll Lynch (The Founder, Zodiac, Star Trek Voyager, The Drew Carey Show), or the depths of ineptitude of White House lawyer John Dean, played by Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Star Wars and Harry Potter films), or the antics of daft Jeb Magruder (Suicide Squad’s Ike Berinholtz), James McCord (played by GLOW and Halloween’s Toby Huss), John Erhlichman, H.R. Haldeman, or Ken Clawson, or even better, a series about Mark Felt played out in full by Gary Cole (instead of the oddly cast Liam Neeson in the theatrical biopic).  We can always use more Gary Cole performances.

As for the women stars of the series, Game of Thrones and The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Lena Headey makes the best of a thin role as Dorothy Hunt, who shows more than once her higher intellect compared to her husband, but the show must be saving Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Kiernan Shipka for later in the series.  Lodge 49’s Joel Murray has a cameo as a country club manager, and one more familiar name–Corbin Bernsen–plays attorney general Richard Kleindienst in later episodes.

White House Plumbers relies heavily on 1970s nostalgia, including musical cues (albeit good musical cues), great cars and angles that make it feel like we’re really in Washington, DC, in the 1970s.  The bags of tricks that Hunt and Liddy brought from the CIA and FBI are the same brand of kookiness later used, and documented in, Argo, the Academy Award-winning film of the rescue of the Canadian hostages in Iran by the CIA, at the other end of the decade.  White House Plumbers is not all that ambitious, not taking the risk of casting anyone as President Nixon or newsman Walter Cronkite (which aren’t necessarily bad moves for this show).

Harrelson and Theroux don’t hold back in playing Hunt and Liddy like the comic book villains they proved to be (and were jailed for being).  For Harrelson, add this to the questionable types he’s mastered since playing Larry Flynt.  Where else can they go but to the burglary and arrest with only three episodes remaining?  A key figure in the first two episodes dies by the end of 1972, so that introduces a place for potentially more drama.

Read the end credits of each episode closely for some humorous Easter eggs from the director and writers.

White House Plumbers is factual, humorous, historical, and oddly relevant, just handled with that typical HBO over-the-top style.  The first two episodes are now streaming on HBO Max, with the remaining three episodes arriving Mondays.

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