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 gains 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.