President Nixon in particular remains an out-of-camera presence throughout most of the eight-episode series, marking Starz’s entry into the crowded realm of sensational historical dramas. The show comes with a glittering tent, casting Julia Roberts and an unrecognizable Sean Penn (is there an Emmy for jaw prostheses?) As Martha and John Mitchell, the latter the dutiful Nixon Attorney General, who put loyalty to the president in front of his wife.
The terrific ensemble also includes Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as John Dean, portrayed as an ambitious young lawyer who is swept along in Nixon’s campaign of dirty tricks, which finally asserts itself with the help of his eventual wife Mo (“GLOWs”). “Betty Gilpin); and Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the messianic soldier G. Gordon Liddy, introduced the performance of his famous stunt by holding his hand over a flame to demonstrate how tough he is.
It is Martha, called “the mouth of the South”, who gives the title of the project as well as its heart and soul, and who gives Roberts a chance to essentially return to the territory of “Steel Magnolias”. Mitchell, known for her friendly relationship with journalists, was kidnapped, held and stunned to prevent her from speaking when the scandal broke out, after which Nixon’s flunkies tried to make her look like a drunk and crazy woman (she has shown to be asked if she’s crazy on a talk show) to discredit her.
Directed by Matt Ross, who works with producers Robbie Pickering and “Mr. Robot’s” Sam Esmail (who previously teamed up with Roberts on “Homecoming”), “Gaslit” sometimes feels as if it has bitten off more than it can chew, narratively speaking. , and the exaggerated aspects – including the Keystone Cops character of the burglary itself – risk colliding with the darker side of the story.
Yet there are plenty of memorable moments in the midst of madness, such as one John Mitchell saying to a big-eyed dean, “To defeat our enemy, we must become snakes,” and Martha later breaks down as her husband worries about her openness: “Get another wife if you want a quiet one.” In addition, there are other handy touches, such as the look that comes across the face of Mark Felt – also known as Deep Throat – as his head at the FBI, L. Patrick Gray (John Carroll Lynch), tries to bury the agency’s investigation.
The renewed interest in Watergate comes after the Trump years and various scandals that have drawn comparisons with what Nixon aides at the time euphemistically described as “simple intelligence gathering” and, as Liddy puts it, achieving “opposition leverage”.
Adapted from the “Slow Burn” podcast, “Gaslit” evokes Watergate with all its clutter, reflecting how the president’s men went from willing accomplices in these schemes to investigative goals, faced with the choice of cooperating or going down with the ship.
At its inception, “Gaslit” presents not only the politics of the 1970s, but also its cultural customs, clearly in the haphazard misogyny that works to dismiss Martha’s claims as raving from a socialist wife. In doing so, it captures a time when there were snakes all around and how far they would go to save their own skins.
“Gaslit” premieres on April 24 at 20 ET on Starz.