There is little question that the Watergate scandal that provides the plot White House Plumbers is kind of funny (it took four bungled attempts to actually get into the office!). And the saga represents one of the most dramatic moments in modern political history (a president resigned in shame!). It is baffling, then, that the team behind the HBO miniseries proves unable to capture either aspect of the story. They tried to make another Veep, and they tried to make another Impeachment: American Crime Story, and wound up with neither. The result is a hodgepodge of poorly written humor incongruous with the grounded world the show inhabits.
The plot requires no background—or ought not to. Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux star as E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, respectively. The characters are minor historical figures, though their portrayal has more in common with The Office’s Michael Scott than their real life counterparts. They’re dumb. Unrealistically so. It’s meant to be funny and cringey, but ends up being tiresome and jarring considering the story that’s being told. (For example: An extended scene in which Hunt and his wife have dinner at Liddy’s house and repeatedly ask for a loud recording of Hitler speeches to be turned down, but, of course, can’t be heard over the speech.) It takes a lot to make Woody Harrelson unfunny, but White House Plumbers succeeds. We spend too little time with any other characters to get much of a sense of them, though Lena Headey and Domhnall Gleeson manage to rise above a script that doesn’t give them much with which to work.
The issues with White House Plumbers are reminiscent of those in the 2018 Dick Cheney biopic Vice: The story is intended as a potshot at modern Republicans and the writers seem to think that’s sufficient to make it good. They are wrong. White House Plumbers, at least, sticks to actual history instead of delving into conspiracy fever swamps for its plot like Vice.
It is baffling that such a mediocre product could come from such a talented group of people. In addition to the already mentioned cast, Judy Greer, Gary Cole, and Rich Sommer make appearances as supporting characters. Veep showrunner David Mandel directs. The script is based on the memoir of one of the Watergate conspirators, Egil Krogh. The latter provides an air of respectability for the show—though a disclaimer at the end of each episode notes that some aspects have been fictionalized for the sake of the plot. That even an intentional focus on plot over accuracy results in such a boring mess of a story is particularly damning.
Episode one of White House Plumbers aired on Monday, and the remaining four will air weekly throughout the month. There is no excuse for such a poor kickoff to what HBO is billing as a prestige, award-bait kind of show—with only five one-hour-long episodes in the season, White House Plumbers doesn’t get the liberty of a slow start. As four more episodes await us, there is still time for White House Plumbers to be redeemed, but there is little to suggest that it will be.