It’s surprising to hear Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck discuss White House Plumbers, their HBO limited series about the Watergate burglars. With straight faces, they claim the show is a “call to reflection” about one of the nation’s defining political scandals. They insist they want viewers to come away with “more questions than answers” and maybe even learn something about the past and the present. That’s baffling, because if they really wanted to provoke subtle responses, then they wouldn’t have turned their story into a living cartoon.
It makes sense they’d treat Watergate as a comedy. Huyck and Gregory were writer-producers on several seasons of Veep, and David Mandel, who directs all five episodes of White House Plumbers, was that series’s showrunner from Season 5 on. They’re all quite experienced at lampooning American politics, and aspects of the Nixon administration's downfall certainly welcome mockery. For one thing, G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) was almost a caricature of jingoistic aggression, with his frequent promises to kill his enemies and his open admiration of Nazi propaganda. When he formed the covert group known as “the plumbers” with former CIA bigwig E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson), he devised such convoluted plans for spying on Democrats that he could’ve been a Bond villain. Yet for all their cocksure scheming, Liddy, Hunt, and their band of criminals weren’t very good at their jobs. One reason everyone got caught was that Liddy was spotted carrying enormous charts outlining plots with names like Operation Diamond and Operation Ruby. This is a satirist’s feast.
White House Plumbers gorges itself. Both Liddy and Hunt are depicted as purely comic figures, responding to every situation, big or small, with the same buffoonish intensity. As Hunt, Harrelson juts out his jaw to Sling Blade extremes, growls his lines, and glares with equal suspicion at his children and his political rivals. The real-life Hunt really was burned by the American government while he was working for the CIA, and here, the resulting paranoia has turned him into the kind of person who will wake his son in the middle of the night so they can toss incriminating evidence over a bridge. Never missing an opportunity to go full goofball, Harrelson screams to the heavens after he forgets to wipe his fingerprints off a hotel room key before it goes in the water.
The actor does register some hurt and sadness when Hunt’s wife Dorothy (Lena Headey) says she’s leaving him. That makes him naturalistic compared to Theroux, who builds his performance around Liddy’s refusal to show weakness. He keeps his face a careful mask, with a glint in his eye that says he enjoys being a tough-talking wannabe cowboy, holding his hand in a candle flame just to prove he’s not soft.
Most of the time, this is funny. Unleashing these bulls into politically sensitive china shops creates one juicy setup after another, from Liddy and Hunt’s panicked attempt to flee the Watergate after their co-conspirators get caught to their sincere assertions that terrible wigs make them unrecognizable as they spy on people. There’s a montage in the first episode of them posing for fake tourist photos in front of “enemy parking spaces” that’s so ludicrous it transcends into the sublime.
However, none of this is thought-provoking. The series frames everyone as a fool who deserves contempt. On Veep, characters like Sue and Marjorie were treated with dignity. They could be foolish, but mostly, their comedy arose from being decent people surrounded by narcissists. Even Selina Meyer occasionally garnered sympathy, like when tourists did unspeakable things to her wax statue at Madame Tussauds. In White House Plumbers, Dorothy’s the only one who has something like human emotions, and then she dies in a plane crash that the series suggests she could’ve avoided if she weren’t hell-bent on revenge. (This isn’t a spoiler. The real Dorothy Hunt died in 1972 on United Flight 553.)
At Dorothy’s funeral, it’s played for laughs when her son Liam (John Hunt) gets up to sing her favorite song. He’s a terrible, over-emotive crooner, and while he’s warbling, Liddy keeps distracting Hunt by whispering sinister new schemes in his ear. This is even harsher than the incredibly similar episode of Veep, which Huyck and Gregory also wrote, where Selina cries about losing the popular vote while a Tim McGraw ballad plays at her mother’s memorial service. At least there, the gathered mourners had the decency to stay quiet.
It’s as though Huyck, Gregory, and Mandel are worried any slide toward empathy will distract them from their singular, scornful focus. Yet because it paints with such a limited palette, the show becomes a slog in its final two hours. It simply doesn’t take five hours to persuasively argue that the Watergate burglars were a pack of clowns, since the culture started doing that decades ago. In 2022, both the Starz series Gaslit and the Oscar-nominated documentary The Martha Mitchell Effect made textured arguments about people struggling to do the right thing from within Nixon’s swamp. White House Plumbers seems shallow by comparison, telling better jokes but saying much less.
White House Plumbers premieres Monday, May 1 at 9:00 PM on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: The White House Plumbers, Alex Gregory, David Mandel, Justin Theroux, Lena Headey, Peter Huyck, Woody Harrelson