Despite a Powerful Performance by Julia Roberts, Gaslit Flames OutPhoto Courtesy of Starz TV Reviews Gaslit
My friends, we’ve reached the “really?” stage of the television boom.
With so many programs to choose from, do I really need to subject myself to Sean Penn saying “swollen, wet vaginas” (not once, but twice!) nine minutes into Gaslit? (Did I mention that, as President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, Penn is heavily made up and in a fatsuit?) Additionally, do we really need persistent use of gratuitous female nudity? I ask myself if the same emotions, settings, and plot points can be conveyed while women are still clothed, and the answer is almost always “yes.”
For instance, when we first meet White House Counsel John Dean (played by Dan Stevens and his Midwestern accent), he has just had an afternoon delight with a sex worker. Their entire conversation occurs while the woman is naked (including full frontal) and Dean is getting dressed (he is never naked). Frankly, Gaslit’s “this is premium cable!” one-two punch of Penn talking about swollen, wet vaginas and the unnecessary nudity nearly did me in. The eight-episode Starz drama about the 1972 Watergate scandal and its aftermath starts off so rough that, initially, I wanted to tell my editor that the series—based on the Slow Burn podcast—isn’t worth our time. And yet, there was something that kept me watching. In addition to Penn and Stevens, the series boasts, among others, Julia Roberts as Martha Mitchell and Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean. Could they, I thought to myself, all be wrong? Does the series has something new and different to say about this tumultuous time in American politics? I’m not so sure.
Nevertheless, as Mitchell’s outspoken wife Martha, Roberts is a force. “The Mouth of the South” regularly gives interviews to reporters (including Allison Tolman’s Winnie McLendon) and has no qualms speaking out about topics as serious as the Vietnam War or as silly as Pat Nixon planning a concert the same night as her party. “I decided long ago that I will say how I feel. And if that does not conform to the president’s message, so be it,” she tells Winnie.
With her trademark megawatt smile on full display, Roberts gives Martha many layers behind her public bravado. She loves the attention, yet there’s an undercurrent of vulnerability to her. She adores her daughter Marty (Darby Camp), yet she undermines her confidence constantly. Meanwhile, Martha and John’s relationship is beyond dysfunctional as their bickering often turns violent. He also consistently demeans her. “I will cancel your diner’s club card if you don’t open this door right now,” Mitchell tells his wife in one of their kinder exchanges.
After the infamous Watergate break-in occurs, the concern over Martha, what she knows, and who she will talk to reaches a crescendo, and she is in immediate danger. Telling the well-known story from this new perspective immerses viewers into what it was like to be a political wife during that time. Martha was the first person to tell the truth about Watergate, yet nobody believed her. “He needs to put a shovel to that embarrassment of a wife,” ruthless White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman (Nat Faxon) says at one point.
But despite the fact the series is advertising the show with a “Watergate was wrong, Martha was right” tagline, Gaslit isn’t just Martha’s story. The show features a number of the important players. It portrays the “masterminds” behind the Watergate scandal as no more competent than the Keystone Cops. During the break-in, they argue about the difference between a parka and a windbreaker while eating fast food. “What if they’re just morons?” FBI agent Paul Magallanes (Carlos Valdes) wonders as he and fellow agent Angelo Lano (Chris Messina) begin to investigate the case.
Meanwhile, Shea Whigham is over the top and off-putting as G. Gordon Liddy, the zealot behind “Operation Gemstone.” Maybe that’s on purpose, but it’s still hard to watch. (There’s an utterly tedious sequence in Episode 7—the last made available for review—between Liddy and a rat that I struggled not to fast-forward through.) But as the foul mouthed, callous political operative Mitchell, Penn is good. I think? Honestly, it’s hard to get past his getup. (Were there really no actors who could have played the man without donning a fat suit and an array of prosthetics? The entire time I watched, I kept thinking of Mike Myers in Austin Powers.)
For her part, Gilpin is fabulous as Mo, a woman Dean marries just as the Watergate scandal is breaking. “Everyone is so evil here; I’m having so much fun,” she tells Dean after he brings her to her first big Republican party. Patrick Walker is also excellent as Frank Wills, the security guard who just wanted a job and ended up discovering the break-in. Their performances, in particular, provide a persistent feeling that there’s a good show somewhere in Gaslit that is fighting hard to get out.
Playing into that is how Gaslit not-so-subtly draws a throughline between civil unrest and the Republican Party of the early 1970s and our current political climate. Nixon here is reminiscent of Donald Trump. At one point, Mitchell compares him to Jesus Christ but notes that “Jesus Christ wouldn’t make it through the Republican primary.” Like Trump, Nixon also turned his back on his loyal followers when things took a turn, even ignoring his one-time campaign manager and best friend Mitchell. “The least you think I could expect to get is a goddam f-king call back,” Mitchell says.
The entire time I watched Gaslit, I ricocheted between thinking it was a thought-provoking series full of memorable performances and that it was a terrible series that too frequently felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. More often than not, though, it felt like the series may be gaslighting me.
Gaslit premieres Sunday, April 24th on Starz.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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