Buffoonery blunders without any bite


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During Donald Trump’s scandal-swamped American presidency, political commentators — picking up a term coined by John Oliver – often referred to particularly dopey acts of corruption as “Stupid Watergate.”

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During Donald Trump’s scandal-swamped American presidency, political commentators — picking up a term coined by John Oliver – often referred to particularly dopey acts of corruption as “Stupid Watergate.”

White House Plumbers (now on Crave, with new episodes airing Mondays) is here to remind us that the original Watergate scandal was plenty stupid. If only the show itself were a little smarter.

Writers Peter Huyck and Alex Gregory and director David Mandel are all Veep alums, but this five-episode limited series seems to be missing the mordant bite of original Veep showrunner Armando Iannucci.

The show is intermittently entertaining but tonally wobbly. The real problem, though, is Plumbers’ oddly self-defeating form of satire. Sure, the Watergate conspirators were out to undermine democracy – “No names have been changed to protect the innocent, because nearly everyone was found guilty,” the show jokes in a disclaimer — but the story goes on to portray these political criminals as so comically bad at their jobs that any malign intentions are essentially rendered toothless.

Apply the same mechanism to current political messes and suddenly it’s not quite as funny, which limits Plumbers’ possibilities for contemporary commentary.

Right from the get-go, the series calls back to that foundational Watergate narrative, the 1976 film All the President’s Men, using the same clatter of typing and a similar font to announce names, places and dates. Instead of concentrating on dogged, democracy-saving journalists, though, Plumbers flips the viewpoint to focus on ground-level Watergate conspirators, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, played by Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux as a bumbling comedy double act.

This time around, history is played as knockabout farce, with gobsmacking levels of incompetence that once again reference All the President’s Men, in this case, Deep Throat’s cynical summary during a clandestine parking-garage meeting: “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

And do they ever. To call Hunt and Liddy “masterminds” of the Watergate burglary would be to give them way too much credit. Even the term “organizers” seems lofty for the level of operational idiocy portrayed here, which includes joke-shop-level disguises, fake limps, malfunctioning walkie-talkies and prop-comedy slapstick.

Hunt is former CIA, Liddy former FBI. Hunt is bitter about commies and JFK. Liddy likes to play Hitler speeches at dinner parties and advocates going after Democrats with a classic blitzkrieg strategy. “Worked in Poland,” he adds.

Still, the series suggests it’s not right-wing ideology driving the men’s increasingly outlandish proposals for dirty tricks. It’s their naked emotional need to get back into the game, their almost pathetic, schoolgirlish hopes that attorney general John Mitchell (John Carroll Lynch) will finally notice them.

In this bizarro buddy comedy, Hunt comes off as the “finesse” guy, if only because he tends to tamp down Liddy’s repeated calls to solve president Nixon’s problems by killing leftists, journalists and potentially damaging witnesses. “Dead dogs chase no cars,” Liddy remarks cryptically. Again, the show exposes his murderous impulses while simultaneously reassuring us that Liddy is such a preening ninny we don’t really need to worry.

The performances can be interesting, if all over the place. Harrelson, at his most jaw-jutting and mumble-mouthed, plays it relatively straight, and the story even makes an awkward attempt at a sympathetic subplot in which Hunt struggles to connect with his increasingly troubled hippie kids. (He’s not much good at it: When he finds his family playing Scrabble “just for fun” instead of keeping score like good Americans, he issues a dark warning that they’re on the road to anarchy.)

Theroux goes cartoonishly broad, turning every line of dialogue into a pronouncement, every movement into a theatrical gesture, starting with Liddy’s party trick – borrowed from Lawrence of Arabia – of holding his hand over a candle flame until the skin makes frizzling noises.

(And while Theroux is wildly mannered, it has to be admitted the real-life Liddy was more than halfway there: In his post-Watergate, post-prison career, he developed a kind of performative fascist persona, jousting with Timothy Leary on campus debate tours, doing cameos on Miami Vice, guesting on Letterman.)

The women fare better: Lena Headey is Hunt’s super-competent wife, Dorothy, Judy Greer is the obliviously sunny Fran Liddy (married for her “Celtic-Teutonic genes”), and Kathleen Turner drops in for a fabulous cameo as a chain-smoking, whisky-voiced broad caught up in an influence-peddling scandal – one that involves an incriminating memo that ends with the words, “Please destroy this, huh?”

Of course, it doesn’t get destroyed, because this is just another example of the Nixon conspirators’ head-scratching ineptitude.

Still, as Liddy suggests, ”If all I’ve done is to undermine the average American’s faith in government, that will pay dividends for the Republican Party, far into the future.” He’s got a point there.

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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