Gaslit review: A sublime Julia Roberts can’t save new Watergate series

Julia Roberts can elevate a scene with nothing however the staccato of her whisper or the anxious fondling of an earring. In Starz’s eight-episode restricted sequence Gaslit, she performs Martha Mitchell, the outspoken spouse of Richard Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell and one of many few characters not instantly recognisable from different Hollywood restagings of this darkish second in US political historical past.

Roberts’s Martha is an all-purpose gossip – nickname: “The Mouth of the South” – till her husband violently threatens her in opposition to telling the press what she is aware of of the administration’s legal ways. Roberts is wrenching as she slides from shrewd to shattered and again once more. However whereas the sequence takes its du jour title from Martha’s predicament, Gaslit doesn’t confine itself to her story. And never even Roberts’s blistering portrayal of a girl terrorised into silence is sufficient to save a drama that’s one way or the other each plodding and overreaching.

The confected sequence premiere is an hour-long parade of considerably to extremely well-known faces, together with a theatrically unhinged Shea Whigham as G Gordon Liddy, the previous FBI agent who helped mastermind the housebreaking of the Democratic Nationwide Committee on behalf of Nixon’s re-election marketing campaign. He’s joined by Dan Stevens as enterprising if naive White Home lawyer John Dean, who will finally be requested to lie for the president, and Sean Penn, struggling to differentiate himself from beneath the waxy prosthetic jowls of his John Mitchell masks.

It’s 1972 when Gaslit picks up, months earlier than the break-in that might change the course of American politics. Again then, Martha was perceived as largely innocent, extra involved with nabbing the duvet of Time than telling fact to energy. However already her marriage to Mitchell, one in every of Nixon’s closest advisors, was poisoned by politics. I’d say the pilot featured a few of the most eviscerating marital putdowns ever seen on TV if I hadn’t additionally seen six of the remaining episodes.

For an image of marital bliss, Gaslit as an alternative appears to be like to John Dean and his leftie girlfriend Mo Kane (a plucky Betty Gilpin), characters whose scenes really feel lifted from a special, lighter sequence. They play tennis collectively! They playfully smush meals in one another’s faces! The Mitchells all the time made a fractious pair, however watching the buoyant John and Mo wrestle to barter the Watergate fallout and John’s notorious position in it (Starz has requested journalists to keep away from specifics to guard the present’s suspense) turns into one of many sequence’ extra intriguing subplots. Even for a a lot happier couple, Gaslit appears to counsel, Washington is its personal indomitable mistress.

However Gaslit, based mostly on the favored 2017 podcast Gradual Burn, isn’t content material to mess around on the sidelines of political historical past, even when that’s when it’s most compelling, akin to what occurs to Frank Wills (Patrick Walker), the Watergate safety guard who first noticed the indicators of a break-in. “How can people live together without a shared understanding of right and wrong?” asks a White Home worker unprepared to take part in a Watergate cover-up. The query might have been on individuals’s minds in 1972, however in 2022, it doesn’t carry the identical existential punch.

“Everyone’s so evil here,” Mo tells John on an early date at a celebration populated with the bold-faced names of the Nixon regime, together with Martha, who on the top of her fame is hiding upstairs at her personal soiree. John Mitchell is there, fuming at his spouse for one thing she stated in {a magazine} interview. And John Dean is simply too involved with jockeying for White Home place to get pleasure from that he’s on the unique visitor listing in any respect. Nonetheless, Mo provides: “I’m having so much fun.”

Alas, she’s the one one.

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