GASLIT Review: Starz’s Docudrama Dares to Be Weird. Is The Show Good?

You’re not seeing things: we’re inundated by TV docudramas these days. The Dropout, The First Lady, The Girl From Plainville… if it made news or inspired a podcast, it’s undoubtedly on TV right now, with major performers lined up to play renowned real-life characters (and earn an easy Emmy nomination).

So I wouldn’t blame you for squinting at Starz’s Gaslit, which premieres this Sunday at 8/7c; I’ve watched the first four episodes, especially given the Watergate tale has been rehashed and replayed since the days of All the President’s Men.

Gaslit, on the other hand, deftly avoids the errors that so many TV docudramas do, opting for a strange, amusing approach that helps it stand out from the crowd.

Gaslit stars Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell, the socialite wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell, and is based on (yep) the podcast Slow Burn. It begins five months before the Watergate break-in (Sean Penn).

When White House counsel John Dean (a suave Dan Stevens) begins preparing a clandestine operation against Nixon’s Democratic opponents, he pulls in a tough talker named G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham).

And then everything goes to hell. We all know Watergate was a Very Serious historical event, but Gaslit turns it all upside down by portraying the break-in as a clumsy comedy of errors with a squad of Keystone Kops commanded by a crazy lunatic.

As cascading twists of fate culminate in the largest political scandal of the century, lies build up on top of lies and alibis are blown.

Gaslit is written by Robbie Pickering and executive produced by Sam Esmail, and it blends the intellectual, weird air of Mr. Robot with a sprinkle of Veep’s foul-mouthed cynicism. It’s unashamedly odd, and it cleverly avoids the dull historical lessons that weaker docudramas like Showtime’s The First Lady dish out.

First and foremost, it depicts a tale in which characters speak like real beings rather than wax figurines in a museum. It also throws in some ridiculous humour, such as when the Watergate thieves discuss the benefits of a windbreaker over a jacket while they’re in the middle of a heist.

It’s also put together a superb group of eleven actors with genuine skill. Roberts plays Martha as a honey-voiced schmoozer who enjoys being in front of the camera, and the part makes the most of her inherent luminosity.

In a bald wig and a fat suit, Penn is unrecognizable as John Mitchell, yet he still sees humanity in him, and he and Roberts have a wonderful relationship as husband and wife. Along the way, notable personalities like Chris Messina and Patton Oswalt appear.

But it’s Whigham, a seasoned TV veteran who’s worked on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Perry Mason, who shines as Liddy: fiercely masculine and crazily insecure, with a terrible propensity for casual violence. (“You’ve never had the pleasure of tasting your own blood.”) At one point, he insults a Mitchell employee, “I can tell.”

When Martha is held hostage under house arrest shortly after the break-in so she won’t tell the press, Gaslit takes a sinister turn. The abrupt collision of tones is startling, and these obnoxious moments don’t fit in with the rest of the series. (It doesn’t help that Martha’s abductor is portrayed by Brian Geraghty, who also appears on ABC’s Big Sky as a nasty kidnapper.)

But, for the most part, Gaslit is a wickedly hilarious and satirical look at a notorious period in American history that none of these individuals are especially happy to be a part of.