It’s been 50 years since the Watergate scandal broke — but thanks to today’s television landscape, it’s still part of the conversation. With a dozen films and TV shows made about the political scandal, writer Robbie Pickering set out to tell a different story with Starz’s “Gaslit” — the one of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general John N. Mitchell and the first person to publicly speak out about the former president’s role in Watergate.
But heading into the topic was a heavy lift. Pickering, who is part of Variety’s Virtual TV Fest taking place June 7-9, has been obsessed with the topic for years — even more so when he listened to Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast. Still, he felt there was still something new to tell.
“I think Martha’s story just needed to get heard. If you look at the variety of stories being told about Watergate, there’s pretty much two: There’s a story about Nixon and there’s a story about Woodward and Bernstein. And everybody tells those stories over and over again. Martha was central to those.”
First, Pickering brought on Julia Roberts for the iconic role. She had one condition: Get Sean Penn to play her husband. Obviously, Pickering wanted Penn as well, but was a bit worried about meeting him and getting to know him, with a fear that he’d bring up politics.
“I didn’t really want to talk to this guy about politics. I know Sean has a political megaphone and all that, but the politics of this period has been done. I’m really interested in relationships and the human dynamics,” he says. But he was pleasantly surprised when he arrived at dinner in a leather jacket (to look cool to the two-time Oscar winner). “All Sean wanted to talk about was that. He never even mentioned politics. We talked about marriage a lot.”
So, while history surrounds the storyline, the limited series isn’t at all about the part of Watergate actually written about in history textbooks, but the people behind it and the relationships they had. In fact, Penn’s father had a similarity to John Mitchell, as someone who famously smoked his pipe. Pickering loved it so much that he wrote it into the UCP series.
“It was this very cool, intimate story about marriage and these little ways that marriage affects you. I was just blown away by it. I was also blown away by Sean’s dad had this thing in common with this villain from history,” says Pickering. “It links all of us. We all have these human things we do.”
With so much content and so many ways to consume it, a lot of what is digested comes down to timing — that worked to the advantage of many of the limited series, as the “based on a true story” model continues to grow and this year rose to the forefront.
HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” created by Antonio Campos, tells the story of Michael Peterson and the mysterious death of his wife, Kathleen, a case that took place in 2003; Peacock’s “Dr. Death” focuses on neurosurgeon Christopher Dunsch who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 for maiming a patient and injuring dozens more; Hulu’s “The Dropout” follows the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her biotechnology company Theranos. She’s scheduled to be sentenced in September for defrauding investors.
The common thread between some of the biggest limited shows of the past year is simple: truth.
For Joshua Jackson, when transforming into Dunsch for “Dr. Death,” he did everything he could to tell the true story. While he never came face-to-face with the man he was portraying — who is behind bars — Jackson ultimately believes that was for the best. It allowed the group to tell the story from a different side. It allowed the group to tell this side of this story.
“He’s not the best person to tell his own story, strangely, because, in my opinion, he is so deeply invested in the fiction of himself as this white knight genius who has been assailed on every side by people who misunderstood him or were out to get him that I’m not sure you can ask a liar a direct question to try to get to the truth,” Jackson tells Variety. “I wasn’t too upset that I didn’t have access to him, but because of the podcasts and because of the work that Patrick and the writers have done, I had access to almost a terabyte of material to sort and sift through beforehand.”
While “Dr. Death,” “The Dropout” and “Gaslit” pulled from podcasts based on true events, Hulu’s “Dopesick” is based on the nonfiction book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America.”
Created by Danny Strong, the eight-episode series looks closely at opioid addiction across the United States, how it affects both individuals and families and Big Pharma. When Michael Keaton, who leads “Dopesick” as family doctor Samuel Finnix, took home the SAG Award in February, he proved just how touching — and personal — the show was for him, dedicating it to his late nephew.
“There’s massive inequity in the world. In ‘Dopesick,’ when you talk about addiction, the way to heal the problem is to accept that you have a problem. Not our country — the entire world. Economically, racially, socially, financially. There’s massive inequity in the world. There just is. There’s fair, and there’s unfair. There’s not a lot of room in between,” the Emmy nominee said at the time. “I can feel right now the rolling thunder of eye-rolling across people saying things to me like, ‘Shut up and dribble. Shut up and act.’ The acting, I’ll quit. The shutting up, not so much. I am blessed to be able to do something that might improve someone’s life.”
Through tears, he noted, “Given the subject matter, this is for my nephew, Michael, and my sister, Pam. I lost my nephew Michael to drugs, and it hurts.” The speech was just another example of the power of telling real stories, especially through the lens of a limited series.
In both “The Girl From Plainville,” which delves into the case of Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to take his own life, and “The Dropout,” Liz Hannah had to walk the line of how much was appropriate to show on screen, especially when viewers watched the real story unfold.
“The challenge we had was that everybody could see the court case. It’s out there,” she says of the very public hearings that took place years before both shows. “The difficulty of a retread where now there’s actors playing those parts, I think was pretty daunting and emotive.”
Others based on true events in contention this year include “Pam & Tommy,” “Inventing Anna,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Candy,” “Impeachment: American Crime Story” and “Super Pumped: The Battle of Uber.”