Review by Sean Boelman
The Watergate scandal might not exactly be what one associates with comedy — dramas like All the President’s Men being the more common storytelling approach — but White House Plumbers is refreshingly in its humor. Although the HBO show might not dig as deep as one would hope, it’s certainly well-made and nothing short of entertaining.
The series tells the story of the “White House Plumbers” and its leaders, E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), who were the masterminds behind the attempted Watergate burglary, and were responsible for bringing down the Presidency they wanted to protect. This is one of the most public blunders ever made in politics, but this show manages to keep things fresh by showing a perspective we might not have known.
Surprisingly, the series is a mere five episodes long, when there was much more story to tell. The first two episodes focus on other operations of the Plumbers — such as the burglary of a psychologist’s office in an attempt to discredit Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg — and the final three focus on Watergate and its aftermath. It could have been interesting to see even more of the Plumbers’ activities.
One of the most unique things about this show is that it takes a comedic, farcical approach to a topic often treated very seriously. It makes sense — there is an absurdity and ridiculousness to these events — and the tongue-in-cheek nature lends a satirical feel to the series. The creators are trying to create a parallel between what happened in the 1970s and what is happening today, and while it doesn’t always work, it’s an absolute zinger when it does.
The show arguably works best as an acting showcase for Harrelson and Theroux who are both fantastic. Theroux is hilarious as a Nazi sympathizer, and Harrelson is perfectly duplicitous and sly. Although the cast also has some other great actors — Lena Headey, Domhnall Gleeson, Ike Barinholtz, and more — Harrelson and Theroux just have such a commanding presence that no one else gets a chance to shine.
The character work is also really intriguing, because these are characters that aren’t particularly likable. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, the Watergate scandal is one of the most despised events in history. Still, the show turns Harrelson’s Hunt into a character who is much more nuanced and even pitiable, albeit thoroughly flawed.
David Mandel (Veep) directs the show in its entirety, and does an excellent job of giving the show a feeling of time and momentum. The production design and costuming are strong recreations of the 1970s. And the operation scenes — particularly the Watergate burglary — blend comedy and intensity quite well.
White House Plumbers brings an interesting perspective and comedic tone to events that everyone knows and hates. Although it could have spared to be an episode (or three) longer, sharp writing and strong performances by Harrelson and Theroux keep the show entertaining.
White House Plumbers debuts May 1 at 9pm ET/PT on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes airing subsequent Mondays. All five episodes reviewed.