The first problem for Starz’s new series “Gaslit” may be in its title.
Sure, to “gaslight,” as a verb, has its origins in the 1944 film (and its earlier stage source material), all about a woman whose husband, insistent on his falsehoods, leads her to question her sanity. But its contemporary usage, as a slang term with a meaning that has drifted closer to simply “lying,” might not be how a woman in the 1970s would understand a case of marital dishonesty.
Which is not to say that Martha Mitchell, the character Julia Roberts plays here, doesn’t have a keen understanding of just what she’s up against. Martha, the real-life wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell, is depicted by Roberts as at once puckishly witty and as not immune to dramatizing her already dramatic circumstances. “Gaslit,” which takes a broad view of the political players in the Watergate scandal but keeps returning to the Mitchells, depicts a marriage that has already come apart. All that’s left for John and Martha to do is torment one another – she taking her revenge by disclosing what she knows of the administration’s crimes to friends in the media, he by, well, gaslighting her, if that’s the term. He stands by while Martha is aggressively directed by Nixonian forces away from revealing what she knows.
“Gaslit” makes some clever choices — among them to not depict the president at all, at least in its first seven episodes. Nixon has a sort of potent anti-charisma, combined with a world-historically rich psychological complex, that makes any project with him appearing onscreen about him. Even Julia Roberts would be no match for that. As Martha, she’s appealingly flawed, a chatterbox who can’t help herself, motivated less by love of country than by a self-interest that seems shrewd until it doesn’t. (Starz has requested that journalists avoid disclosing various pieces of historical fact to preserve the show’s suspense; suffice it to say that Martha receives the brunt of presidential power in order to keep her silent.) Sean Penn gets off less easily, swaddled in and inhibited by the waxwork prosthetics that seem to crop up somewhere in every true-life dramatization these days.
But in keeping Nixon offscreen, the show also lets itself off the hook. The particularities of the way Nixonian paranoia played itself out over the national landscape defy easy comparison, and yet the show makes frequent, flat gestures towards the modern day. The series is based on the Leon Neyfakh-hosted podcast “Slow Burn,” which attempted to situate the Watergate story for contemporary listeners. Journalism can, perhaps, accomplish this specific goal more elegantly than fiction: Consider one minor character delivering a monologue about how Americans cannot “live together without a shared understanding of right and wrong.” This is certainly true enough. But it’s also somewhat basic as a takeaway: Watergate being a breaking point for American reality seems like a beginning insight, not the thing toward which we’re building.
Limited, too, is the show’s sicko-mode depiction of G. Gordon Liddy, the organizer of the Watergate break-in, as a violently monomaniacal freak. Seemingly directed by series helmer Matt Ross to go as massive as possible, Shea Whigham delivers a performance whose intensity blots out potential insight. If Liddy, who ends multiple of the show’s episodes with fire-and-brimstone proclamations and is later shown banging his head into a wall until he draws blood, is a madman from another planet, then we don’t need to bother wondering what makes our countrymen, our neighbors, turn to violence and counterreality.
It takes nothing away from Roberts’ fine work to say that her scenes with Penn are not the show’s strongest. Martha’s bearing (and her name) suggest “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” fireworks; the fighting between Martha and John, instead, is unmotivated and slack, happening because the show has episodes to fill. “We used to be a team,” Martha tells John in the first episode. “Now it’s just jokes and silences and the occasional rough sex and campaign business.” The problem for viewers is that the jokes don’t crackle and the silences lack subtext. (And we don’t see the sex.) What’s left is a show that doesn’t seem to need the dynamic of a marriage to make its points about the business of remaining in power.
The show’s best scenes depict a couple on the other side of marital collapse: John Dean, the White House Counsel, and his wife Mo. As played by Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin, they burn with a passionate intensity. “I’m only capable of loving you desperately or hating your guts,” she tells him at one point. The pair are, like the rest of the characters on “Gaslit,” caught in history’s slipstream; John is attempting to extricate himself from his own complicity in presidential crimes all while beginning a domestic life. But their winning optimism, their belief that they can somehow get out ahead of the thudding steps of impending scandal, creates a different sort of dramatic irony than we see in every other aspect of a show that addresses a 1972 story through 2022 eyes. John and Mo are, perhaps, the only characters we see who don’t know they’re on a TV show about Watergate.
“Gaslit” premieres on Starz at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, April 24.