“White House Plumbers” is the story of a couple of tried-and-true Americans who wanted to serve their president. That description can go any which way, and it certainly fits the bizarre legacy of seasoned agent G. Gordon Liddy and his associate, Howard Hunt, who led the disastrous espionage operations later known as the Watergate scandal. As this goofy but mild miniseries from co-creators Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck presents it, the two were hotshots who would essentially bicker over who was the biggest patriot. They engrained their loyalty to the country and President Nixon into shady and clumsy work, and their superiors, like Attorney General John Mitchell and Attorney John Dean, supported them. Before Watergate, Liddy and Hunt had become known for getting the job done, though not necessarily in a flattering way for the term “American intelligence.”
The political fallout caused by Liddy, Hunt, their first arrested associates, the Nixon administration, etc., used to imbue paranoia, conspiracy, and distrust. Fifty years later, those concepts are old hat on a national scale. Now, Watergate is a joke about the infrastructure of America. “White House Plumbers” offers the lightest amusement in retracing these country-defining events, with Liddy and Hunt as our guides, but the five-episode series eventually flattens out into a bland historical reenactment sometimes spiked with cartoonish reactions.
With each episode directed by David Mandel (also a “Veep” alum, along with Gregory and Huyck), “White House Plumbers” initially gets considerable momentum from the weirdness of its two lead performances. Justin Theroux is about as pompous as he can be with the tar-black, openly fake-looking mustache of Liddy, paired neatly with the agent’s troubling love of Hitler’s speeches, guns, and propensity to keep his hand over a flame as a gesture of his trustworthiness. Shea Whigham previously played this larger-than-life figure in Starz’s Watergate and Martha Mitchell series “Gaslight” with even more feverish intensity, at one point stealing the show from Julia Roberts by battling a rat in prison. But Theroux’s self-amusement with the character is infectious enough; it’s in the way his Liddy speaks regally as if he were already the star of a mini-series in his head. Mandel often embraces wide-angle lenses to make his characters appear even larger than life in the frame (also seen this week with a similar effect in David Lowery’s “Peter Pan & Wendy”), and it’s a particularly fitting way to capture Theroux’s irascible work.
Harrelson has even more screen time than Hunt, with the show trying to understand how misguided Hunt was. “White House Plumbers” grabs a few chuckles from how Hunt is only a layer away from Liddy’s nuttiness or that he’s a dorky dad with a secret job. But Harrelson’s veneers and gurgly voice do a lot of the heavy lifting for an otherwise bland comedic and dramatic performance. Hunt’s character has a tragic element that Harrelson doesn’t get to the bottom of, and it’s a missed opportunity.
“White House Plumbers” is better before it gets to Watergate, with the first half depicting how Liddy and Hunt were bombastic but somehow good at their jobs, which helped them lead Nixon’s corrupt Committee for the Re-election of the President. (The title comes from how they were known for “fixing leaks.”) The series slightly elevates its comedy here. Harrelson and Theroux ham up liberally recounted events that have some shred of truth, and flourish in a passage about investigating the therapist of Daniel Ellsberg (who famously released the Pentagon Papers). We watch Liddy and Hunt, in bafflingly fake wigs, do dumb things like pose in front of the camera used during a break-in (only made worse when Hunt doesn’t take the film out before it reaches the authorities later on). It’s Coen brothers-lite with the bittersweetness of history and a looming sense of how ill-conceived each move is. Their patriotism isn’t just inflating their hubris; it will get them in serious trouble.
But that charm doesn’t last. The “Can you believe this actually happened?” angle of “White House Plumbers” loses its edge when it gets to the aftermath of Watergate and underwhelms its supporting performances. This self-amused series recruits a wealth of funny supporting people—Joel Murray, Toby Huss, Ike Barinholtz, Judy Greer, David Krumholtz, Domhnall Gleeson, and more—as if to signal a lighter nature, but then minimizes what they can offer. The show’s earlier savviness is then stretched thin, and “White House Plumbers” can’t decide on a firm tone. Its fleeting entertainment becomes more about the events: Nixon confessed to lying and got away; those who worked under him had a more dramatic path to some kind of accountability, including trials and facing their definition of loyalty.
“White House Plumbers” makes ample room for Hunt’s family and spends a lot of time observing how Hunt’s actions affected the family of eight. At one cringing point, Hunt even asks his hippie-rocker son to destroy evidence. In the process of sometimes dragging through the Hunts’ domestic drama, we at least get a striking performance for Lena Headey as Dorothy Hunt, portraying a spouse with her own history of adventure and a firm spine, even when drawing a line with her husband. In one surprising moment in episode four, the family connection turns deadly, sending the gears of conspiracy into overdrive inside Hunt’s head. He knows so much that could get the White House in danger. But Nixon would never hang him, a great patriot, out to dry, right?
It’s telling how the Watergate break-in scenes—four of them, the third attempt is when they got the wires and bugs into the DNC office—create a wonky rhythm for the show when it should be as consistently chipper as the fast bongos heard throughout the score. “White House Plumbers” reckons that the break-in saga is worth this amount of focus instead of a snazzy montage or two. And so we see each one rise and fail, with Hunt, Liddy, and their equally goofy associates struggling with the concept of being inconspicuous (at one point, they just rent a function room in the Watergate, waiting for the workers at the Democratic National Committee office upstairs to clear). These scenes should be punchier and funnier. As it looks back with embarrassment, “White House Plumbers” may include both ridiculous and true events, but we don’t get enough to laugh about.
Whole series was screened for review. “White House Plumbers” premieres on HBO on May 1st.