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‘White House Plumbers’ Review: Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux in HBO’s Exhaustingly Hijinks-Heavy Watergate Comedy


As a piece of history, the Watergate scandal is a terrifying narrative mish-mash.

There were too many characters in this silly drama series and almost all of them are questioning faith – one bizarre caricature after another – except they’re all real. It’s a problem Hollywood has solved by telling the Watergate story over and over again, each time spotlighting a different principal within the burgeoning fiasco. Perhaps there are similarities between Watergate stories – the guard removing the tape from an unauthorized opened door has become the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents of 20th century American history – but with an ever-changing prism it should be possible to never get away with a repeated perspective.

Plumbers in the White House

It comes down to

Thoroughly manic, but insufficiently controlled chaos.

broadcast date: 9 p.m. Monday, May 1 (HBO)
Form: Woody Harrelson, Justin Theroux, Lena Headey, Judy Greer, Domhnall Gleeson, Toby Huss, Ike Barinholtz, Kathleen Turner, Kim Coates, Yul Vazquez, Alexis Valdés, Nelson Ascencio, Tony Plana, Zoe Levin, Liam James, Kiernan Shipka, Tre Ryder , David Krumholtz, F. Murray Abraham, Rich Sommer, and John Carroll Lynch
creators: Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck

Maybe you have All the president’s men at one, very serious, end of the spectrum and Dick at another very silly end of the spectrum and every other variation looking for tonal traction in between.

The battle for tonal traction is the main challenge for HBO’s upcoming five-part series Plumbers in the White House, written by Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck and directed by David Mandel. By putting the spotlight on E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), Gregory and Huyck have possibly given themselves the toughest point-of-entry figures in this entire saga. In a story full of broad caricatures, Hunt and Liddy are perhaps the broadest and perhaps the least sympathetic.

In terms of ambition you can think of Plumbers in the White House like Hunt and Liddy’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, two little historical footnotes convinced them to be heroes. In terms of more practical execution, it’s clearly difficult to take two figures who are generally portrayed as supporting comic relief, somehow exaggerate their already exaggerated features to make them comic protagonists, and then an abrupt detouring into an attempt at seriousness that instead comes across as operatic pathos. of humanization.

Plumbers in the White House is a series of partially managed chaos, where every actor in the commanding ensemble feels like they’re on a different show, and here’s the point: the altercation is probably largely intentional, and I’m convinced it’s a valid interpretation of a way Watergate probably felt from the inside. It still makes for a frustrating and not entirely satisfying TV series.

The show presents Hunt and Liddy as a pair of very different unfulfilled family men whose most committed relationship is with the Republican Party.

When he’s not writing terrible spy novels under a pseudonym, Hunt is stuck in a dead-end PR job after being forced out of the CIA. He goes home to wife Dorothy (Lena Headey), who herself has a more decorated espionage past, and an assortment of twisted kids. An FBI fallout, Liddy has a reputation for eccentricity and a nerve-rackingly cheerful, well-behaved family led by wife Fran (Judy Greer). The two men are brought together by Bud Krogh (Rich Sommer) and assigned to investigate the leak of the Pentagon Papers.

Hunt and Liddy fail upwards, and soon their duties include plugging other leaks — hence the cheeky job title “plumbers” — and eventually bugging Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate office building.

As “angles” go, approaching the Watergate burglary as the act of a group of disorganized buffoons is the least revealing thing imaginable. Plumbers in the White House tries to humanize his perpetrators by illustrating that underneath their jesting… was much, much more jesting. The series starts with this imbecility already at maximum volume and then makes it louder and louder.

Hunt is a complicated buffoon. He is motivated by a sense of economic inferiority, by a daughter with emotional problems, and by whether or not he was involved in Kennedy’s assassination. None of this makes him heroic, but at least you can identify several human things that drive him. Liddy is a hilarious buffoon. He talks in a rambling accent, blasts recordings of Hitler speeches to dinner guests, and holds his hand over an open flame to prove…something.

Put them together and they’re like two-thirds of the Stooges, especially when they head to Los Angeles in an array of ridiculous costumes and absurd wigs (no less realistic than the show’s general ’70s hair and makeup and costumes) . It’s a funny treatment of these characters without being an insightful treatment.

None of this is noticeably different from the manic parade of idiots and villains at the center of HBOs Veep, training ground for Mandel, Gregory and Huyck. Perhaps the criticism is less provocative because the facts are so familiar and established? Perhaps the Beltway madhouse is more exhausting due to the decision to ramp up the story to five hour-long episodes?

By the end of an hour I was exhausted from the hijinks. By the end of two hours, after thoroughly reenacting every failed Watergate break-in, I was looking for something that resembled a stationary center of this crazy universe. By the end of three hours, I’d identified Headey’s bright and capable Dorothy as the only character here worth rooting for – as a more deadly version of Martha Mitchell, the focus of Starz’s recent effort to portray Watergate. like a scandal fueled by buffoons. And by the end of the fourth episode, I was actively angry at the slightly cheesy laugh that accompanied Dorothy and her real fate.

Then the fifth episode suddenly decides that we have to take everything seriously. After four hours of wanting us to laugh at Liddy, the show is like, “You know he’s bad, right?” as if viewers are to blame for not fixing on the darkness sooner. After four hours of treating Hunt like an inflated blow-jaw, the show is like, “His hubris is heartbreaking,” as if viewers were responsible for him choosing country over family. It will be a series of lectures on what this wacky adventure really meant for the country: “If I’ve only undermined the trust of the average American in government, it will pay off for the Republican Party well into the future,” says Liddy . with overwhelming clarity.

I am fully willing to accept Plumbers in the White House as an extended analogy to the January 6 riot, but it would be more palatable as a 90-minute telefilm. Trust me folks, in 2071 no one will need a 5 hour attempt to lionize that shaman either.

Harrelson’s performance is most consistent with the show’s varied excesses; whether the show wants to treat Hunt as a vain fool or a tragic pawn, at least it’s committed to it and finds some levels where Hunt is anything but stupid. Theroux is the funniest of the two protagonists, mixing delirious line readings with a Tex Avery animation physicality, but he’s less able to hang on to anything that might ground Liddy. As scene-stealing supporting performances, both would probably be Emmy-worthy. As protagonists, they left me looking for a relief valve.

Headey comes closest as a repository of cutting deliveries and subtle eye-rolls in a series where nothing else strives for “subtle.” A few couples dinners with the Hunts and Liddys are the show’s best scenes because of how good Headey and Greer (underused but making the most of her character’s sunny disposition) are.

Most of the time, though, the actors in the over-qualified supporting cast come in, try to exaggerately scream or flutter or sputter to keep up with the leads, and then leave without justifying their performance. While I’d single out Kathleen Turner (wonderfully unrecognizable in a one-episode cameo), Zoe Levin, Domhnall Gleeson, and Toby Huss for getting brief value out of their screen time, the list of actors being wasted completely includes Kiernan Shipka, Gary Cole, Corbin Bernsen, F. Murray Abraham, Yul Vazquez, and David Krumholtz. It’s a great cast! It’s not a good use of it.

Towards the end of Plumbers in the White House, I started looking ahead and trying to figure out who the next Watergate series should be built around. The answer, if anyone’s curious, is the small group of Cubans arrested in the break-in. Find a Cuban-American writer interested in understanding their story and find a better angle than “stupid buffoons.” I’m ready for it.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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