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Recommended: Gaslit on Starz

Julia Roberts and Sean Penn skillfully balance the sinister with the silly in this glittery Watergate era tale.
  • Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in Gaslit (Photo: Starz)
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    Gaslit | Starz
    Eight-Episode Limited Series (Political Drama) | TV-MA

    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.

    Who's involved?

    • Julia Roberts is Martha Mitchell, who is not only the wife of Nixon's Attorney General, but also a celebrity in her own right. An Arkansas-born socialite, she's known as the "Mouth of the South," given her penchant for seeking out her own press and speaking a little too candidly about the goings-on in Washington. This all comes to a head when she breaks ranks as a Republican and publicly accuses Nixon of being involved with Watergate.
    • Sean Penn is John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States and Martha's husband. As one of the architects of Nixon's campaign of dirty tricks, he is ruthless and deeply unpleasant, often towards his own wife, whose media-courting ways he resents.
    • Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) is John Dean, a low-level lawyer looking to advance in the Nixon administration who gets leveled up at the worst possible time.
    • Betty Gilpin (GLOW) is Mo Dean, John's (eventual) wife, who finds the whole Nixon administration fascinatingly repellant when they first start dating and ends up married to one of the eventual Watergate fall guys.
    • Shea Whigham (Perry Mason) is G. Gordon Liddy, one of the most notorious Watergate participants and a complete loose cannon.
    • Sam Esmail is the show's executive producer. He created the acclaimed series Mr. Robot and executive produced the Prime Video series Homecoming, which also starred Julia Roberts.

    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

    • The Dropout (Hulu), another limited series based on a podcast that tackles a crime that almost beggars belief when it comes to the hubris and incompetence of its perpetrators.
    • Homecoming (Hulu), Esmail and Roberts's last team-up — and also another podcast adaptation — about the mysterious goings-on within the military industrial complex.
    • Dick (rent on Prime Video), which should definitely scratch your itch for seeing the Nixon administration depicted with maximum irreverence and silliness, all through the eyes of two teen girls played by Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst.

  • Gaslit
    Premieres on Starz April 24, 2022 at 8:00 PM ET. New episodes Sundays through June 12th.
    Executive Producer Sam Esmail. Based on the Slate podcast "Slow Burn."
    Starring: Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, and Shea Whigham.
    Directed by: Matt Ross.
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    TOPICS: Gaslit, Starz, Betty Gilpin, Dan Stevens, Julia Roberts, Matt Ross, Sam Esmail, Sean Penn, Shea Whigham