Recommended: Gaslit on Starz
What's Gaslit About?
Based on the first season of Slate's Slow Burn podcast, Gaslit reframes the oft-told story of the Watergate scandal by focusing on a handful of lesser-known players.
Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?
Given the podcasting boom of the last decade, it's no surprise we're living in a mini-golden age of TV shows based on popular podcasts. (The Dropout recently set the high water mark.) Gaslit's take on Slow Burn's Watergate season has seemingly made the calculation that if you're going to bother to do a screen adaptation of a podcast, then you might as well cast it as glitteringly as possible.
It's not a bad calculation, particularly with Julia Roberts's star wattage at the center of the show. She luxuriates in the role, rolling around in an Arkansas accent that will surely be a topic of debate, but accuracy to an accent is less important here than accuracy to a larger-than-life persona. Roberts is more than equipped to deliver a Martha Mitchell who's as adept at dragging Pat Nixon in a print interview as she is at guesting on panel game shows. Her relationship with her husband, played by a nearly-unrecognizable Sean Penn in flabby facial prosthetics, is a toxic Washington marriage of power brokering, competing agendas, and resentment, but it's Martha's willingness to ignore Republican orthodoxy — she also speaks out against the war in Vietnam — that drives a wedge between them.
Gaslit splits its focus among the Mitchells, John Dean, and G. Gordon Liddy, a decision that will have you calculating and re-calculating what exactly the show is saying by bringing these particular individuals to the fore. Martha was the one who spoke out, Dean was the one who took the fall, and Liddy … well, Liddy was a terror. As played by Shea Whigham, he's the part of this show that'll be hardest to shake. An unholy mix of militaristic zeal, fascist ethos, and hypermasculine aggression, Liddy is the embodiment of the American nightmare that Nixon and the Republicans were appealing to. It's also through Liddy that Gaslit most clearly calls out to current events. The Watergate break-in may seem positively genteel compared to the January 6th insurrection, but in Liddy we see that the impulses of this country's radical right have been there for decades.
In another apt comparison to current events, Gaslit also nails the cartoonish buffoonery that seems to accompany high-level threats to our democracy. Liddy is terrifying, but he's also a ludicrous creature, and the entire Watergate conspiracy is full of men with bad intentions and zero chill. Balancing the sinister and the silly is tricky, but Gaslit does it so well that's it's still a good time, even when it's just delivering highly watchable trash.
Pairs well with