White House Plumbers hits the funny bone of the Watergate scandal

The true story of the Watergate scandal is told from the perspective of the bungling operatives at its centre in White House Plumbers. Blending satire, slapstick, and drama, and skewering the current political landscape, it’s helped immeasurably by a cast headed by Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, writes Steve Newall.

More than fifty years on, we’re still constantly reminded we live in a post-Watergate world. Not just because the suffix “-gate” is now affixed to any and all forms of political scandal, but because the ramifications of the dirty tricks to aid then-President Nixon’s reelection continue to reverberate.

As one of the main characters in White House Plumbers reflects proudly, long after the show’s shit has hit the fan: “If nothing else, if all I’ve done is to undermine the average American’s faith in government, that will pay dividends for the Republican Party far into the future”. That’s exactly what Trump and others seeking to undermine America from within or afar rely on in the modern American political era, and the parallels with modern events hardly end there.

But exactly what happened at Watergate has become less clear in popular culture over time. Yes, it’s synonymous with state overreach, with most people attuned to Western politics aware it involved a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and that the subsequent cover-up eventually led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.

As with any good conspiracy and cover-up there’s much more to the story, of course. And along with the chilling right-wing abuse of power, the bizarre events behind the scenes are perhaps why this sordid tale has fascinated on screens big and small—from 1976’s iconic investigative journalism pic All the President’s Men to last year’s series Gaslit.

Across five episodes, White House Plumbers juggles various tonal elements as it explores the core characters involved in Watergate. Directed by David Mandel—whose credits include Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and also took over as Veep showrunner for seasons five through seven—the show blends satire, slapstick, and drama. Mandel weaves in and out of self-awareness when he needs to foreground the emotive impact of events on its characters, while elsewhere (as with the undermining-faith-in-government line quoted earlier) the show leans in hard to skewer the current political landscape.

White House Plumbers is aided in this immeasurably by its cast. Bottom jaw jutting out overtime, Woody Harrelson is the show’s straight(est) man as E. Howard Hunt—the former CIA man held responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco, who may in real life have known who really killed JFK, and who some claim was the inspiration behind Mission: Impossible’s Ethan Hunt (even if this particular E stood for Everette). Harrelson’s Hunt is conviction and anger personified—unpleasant as he is patriotic, and a total shit to his wife (Lena Headey) and his kids in dramatic moments that convey the human cost to the boys playing spy, scenes that offset the comedy found elsewhere,

Which brings us to Justin Theroux’s turn as G. Gordon Liddy. Already a caricature in real life, Liddy lets the usually brooding Theroux (The Leftovers) flex another of his (many) muscles as an insufferably pompous buffoon. One who loves holding his hand over a naked flame, suffering third degree burns, as he repeatedly demonstrates his unwavering devotion and willpower. Oh, and Liddy is also an enormous Nazi sympathiser (which causes some consternation among his 70s colleagues, many of whom served in WW2).

Theroux’s Liddy is kind of a grim Third Reich Ned Flanders—mo’ and all—and his Germanic obsession emerges in various forms throughout the series from the minor (“One more beer please… anything German”) to the concerning (playing an LP of Hitler speeches to dinner guests) and, yes, outright Nazi salutes. It also strays into the workplace, as evidenced when Liddy proposes a new name for the covert partnership he forges with Hunt. Their department—formed around Hunt when Nixon asks “for a real son of a bitch” to handle the Pentagon Papers leaks—is originally titled the Special Intelligence Unit, to which Hunt takes instant offence, thinking it unflatteringly describes their mental acuity.

They’re put to work to limit the impact of the Pentagon Papers, patriotically leaked by (recently deceased) national hero Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg took huge risks to inform the American people about the awful truths of the Vietnam War that their government was hiding from them. So, of course, the state hated him…

“When you and I are the guys that nail Ellsberg, Nixon will love us—and by extension, Project Odessa,” Libby predicts. He’s come up with a new name for the Special Intelligence Unit, which he proudly explains: “Odessa is the secret network that helped the SS officers get to South America.”

When queried by Hunt about how exactly that relates to their current national security problems, Libby replies: “I already had the stationery made.” Hunt: “You made stationery for a covert op?!”

Eventually they’ll change the nameplate on their door to The Plumbers (“we fix leaks”), but the Odessa exchange is neither the first nor last moment in which director David Mandel channels his time on Veep. It’s a style of humour used in both shows to spotlight stupidity, underline arrogance, and humiliate hubris. But, like a good plumber, Mandel knows when to employ each of his tools, and as much as we’re encouraged to laugh plenty, he doesn’t overplay his hand with winking comedy—and lands dramatic blows as needed, too.

Stylistically, the show clearly knows exactly what it is. Pleasingly absent is the faux-doco style of comedies like Veep, and White House Plumbers also wisely avoids embracing a grainy era-specific tone, not aping All the President’s Men (barring a couple of split diopter shots that are enjoyable, but don’t attempt to match Gordon Willis’s cinematographic magnificence in that film).

It may open on a dated 1972 Home Box Office logo, but the overall feel is a modern, but not achingly contemporary, TV show. Maybe it’s the suits and ’taches, but I kept thinking it felt like a small screen version of Shane Black’s excellent buddy-cop comedy The Nice Guys—another period-piece example of successfully housing various tones to strong effect.

But back to Hunt and Liddy. In a sign of things to come, they dress in absurd disguises to get access to Daniel Ellsberg’s patient files from his psychiatrist. While the mission’s a SNAFU, the pair are fired—and then instantly re-hired—by John Dean (Domhnall Gleeson) to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Their commitment and zeal impressed the right people, Hunt and Libby are told.

Their new task? As Dean puts it: “Espionage, sabotage, infiltration, disinformation, electronic surveillance, recruiting and planting moles… your various and sundry dirty tricks—same shit they do to us every election.” Sounds familiar in 2023, doesn’t it… Headey makes this point overt as Hunt’s wife later in the series, asking him to consider whether the Democrats were ever actually cosying up to Communists, or whether the whole thing is a fantasy—an echo of the conspiratorial nonsense clogging up present-day US ‘news’ channels.

Hunt and Liddy will get to the Watergate Office Building, their multiple break-in attempts, and the subsequent disastrous cover-up soon enough… but first there’s some witness tampering to do. Liddy, in yes, an absurd disguise, goes to dissuade lobbyist Dita Beard from testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about some Republican Party bribery. Beard’s played by the great Kathleen Turner (just one cameo in an excellent cast that also includes appearances from Ike Barinholtz, Judy Greer, F. Murray Abraham, Kiernan Shipka, Rich Sommer, David Krumholtz and Gary Cole), and her timbre sounds purpose-built for the conversation she has with Theroux’s Libby.

Hinting towards finding an excuse for Beard to avoid testifying, Libby enquires: “Do you have any, um, medical conditions?

The response comes as only Kathleen Turner can: “I’m a very physical woman, George… hiking… camping… snowmobiling… fucking…” A slightly rattled Libby tries to get back on track: “I meant, like, cancer in the family…”

It’s this enjoyable stuff that glues together the scandal, the stupidity, the can-you-believe it moments. And with White House Plumbers never outstaying its welcome, the show serves as a comedy, history lesson, and reference to the modern Republican Party all in one. You can’t help but think of tools like Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Stephen Miller etc etc,  not to mention the modern rise of Nazism, while watching this. Indeed, Giuliani’s infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference debacle would feel at home in this series—as would all the right’s nonsensical desperate lies about election fraud, and their adoration of fascism.

Would Hunt and Libby have considered a coup attempt like January 6th? OK, yes, they probably would have. But thankfully, even though chumps like these are still around today, they’re as likely to self-sabotage as they are to blow up democracy. “The President is a good man,” we hear at one point. “Between you and me, I worry about some of the people with whom he surrounds himself.” The first part? Debatable irony. The second? Confirmed in both White House Plumbers and on tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers.