You’re not imagining things: We are positively drowning in TV docudramas these days. The Girl From Plainville, Inventing Anna, The Dropout, The First Lady… if it made headlines or inspired a podcast, it’s probably on TV right now, with big stars lining up to play famous real-life figures (and earn an easy Emmy nomination). So I couldn’t blame you if you cast a weary eye in the direction of Starz’s Gaslit — premiering this Sunday at 8/7c; I’ve seen the first four episodes — especially since the story of the Watergate scandal has been told and retold since the days of All the President’s Men. Gaslit manages to nimbly sidestep the pitfalls that so many TV docudramas fall into, though, finding a weird, funny angle that helps it stand out from the pack.
Based on (yes) the podcast Slow Burn, Gaslit opens five months before the Watergate break-in, with Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, the socialite wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell (Sean Penn). When John begins plotting a covert operation against Nixon’s Democratic rivals, White House lawyer John Dean (a slick Dan Stevens) brings in a tough talker named G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham)… and all hell breaks loose. We know that Watergate was a Very Serious historical event, but Gaslit flips all that on its head by playing the break-in as a bumbling comedy of errors — a group of Keystone Kops led by a raving madman. Lies pile on top of lies and alibis get bungled as cascading twists of fate culminate in the biggest political scandal of the century.
Gaslit hails from Mr. Robot writer Robbie Pickering, with Sam Esmail also on board as an executive producer, and it combines that show’s cerebral, oddball vibe with a dash of Veep‘s foul-mouthed cynicism. It’s proudly bizarre, and it wisely avoids the stagnant history lessons doled out by inferior docudramas like Showtime’s The First Lady. It tells a story, first and foremost, where people actually talk like human beings and not like wax figures in a museum. It injects goofy humor into the mix, too, like when the Watergate robbers debate the merits of a windbreaker versus a jacket while they’re mid-felony.
It’s also assembled a remarkable cast that’s ten-deep with serious talent. As Martha, Roberts is a honey-voiced schmoozer who loves the camera, and the role takes full advantage of her natural radiance. Penn is unrecognizable in a bald wig and fat suit as John Mitchell, but he still finds the humanity in him, and he and Roberts have a natural rapport as husband and wife. Plus, familiar faces like Chris Messina and Patton Oswalt pop up around the edges. But the true highlight is Whigham — a seasoned TV veteran from Boardwalk Empire and Perry Mason — who is delightfully unhinged here as Liddy: aggressively macho and wildly insecure, with a disturbing taste for casual violence. (“You’ve never tasted your own blood. I can tell,” he taunts a Mitchell staffer at one point.)
Gaslit does take a dark turn when, immediately after the break-in, Martha is kept captive under house arrest so she won’t blab to the press. These ugly scenes don’t fit with the rest of the series, and the abrupt clash of tones is jarring. (It doesn’t help that Martha’s captor is played by Brian Geraghty, who also plays a sadistic kidnapper on ABC’s Big Sky.) Mostly, though, Gaslit is a wickedly entertaining and irreverent look at an infamous slice of American history that none of these characters are particularly proud to be a part of.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: With an excellent cast and a goofy sense of humor, Starz’s Watergate saga Gaslit is a cut above the standard TV docudrama.