Gaslit review: Julia Roberts enters her Meryl Streep era with wildly entertaining Watergate series

Creator Robbie Pickering was right when he said in an interview that Gaslit could have very easily been an overcorrection of history. At a time when television producers are tripping over themselves to present feminist readings of past events, Gaslit projects its progressiveness in a tongue-in-cheek manner that doesn’t dilute the sinister undertones of its fact-based story.

But perhaps what’s most surprising about the show (about the Watergate scandal, and based on a Slate podcast called Slow Burn) is that it doesn’t take the usual conspiracy thriller route, unlike the scores of older films and series about the biggest political misdemeanour in modern history. Against all expectations, Gaslit plays like a farce; a dark satire of our times that would make Armando Ianucci and Kundan Shah proud. “You were conducting criminal operation on behalf of the President and somebody gave you an office at the White House?” one character deadpans to another, eliciting the single biggest laugh of the show.

Despite being an ensemble piece, Gaslit has a particular affinity for the character Martha Mitchell. Played by Julia Roberts in a performance that will probably win her some very important awards next year, Mitchell is among the handful of second-tier characters who were involved in the scandal, but for some reason were relegated to the appendices of lore. Which is ironic, considering how desperately Mitchell wanted to be in the news.

A legendary gossip, the middle-aged southern belle was married to John Mitchell, the former Attorney General to President Richard Nixon. He’s played in the show by an unrecognisable Sean Penn, which, come to think of it, is exactly how I like my Sean Penn these days. Nixon said in his famous interview with David Frost, a few years after resigning from the presidency, that were it not for Martha Mitchell, Watergate wouldn’t have happened. What he probably meant was that were it not for her, he wouldn’t have been caught.

She was, after all, among the first public figures to call for Nixon’s resignation, but was summarily gagged by a gang of powerful men around her, who accused her of being a blabbermouth (which she was) and mentally unstable (debatable). Towards the end of her life—penniless and alone, dismantled by the same press that built her—she began questioning her reality, which, I suppose, is where the show gets its title. Roberts’ performance highlights Martha’s individualism, and her dignity, even when she is aware that she is losing both.

It’s always interesting to observe what perspective a historical drama takes. The trick is to not come across as smug. And that is perhaps what sets Gaslit apart from, say, the works of Adam McKay. Consider the series finale, a terrific episode titled The Year of the Rat. It’s a masterclass in balancing tone, moving so seamlessly from domestic drama to tragic romance to absurdist comedy, and relying on metaphor and symbolism instead of boring things like facts. Everyone is operating at their best in this episode; not only Roberts and Penn, who get a terrific confrontation scene as their relationship crumbles under pressure, but also the show’s standout performer, Shea Whigham.

It would seem as if Whigham, a character actor known for playing intense oddballs, has spent his career building towards this role. In Gaslit, he plays Gordon Liddy, a radical-minded FBI agent who was in charge of the team of thieves that broke into Watergate complex. Liddy, in many ways, represents the maniacal alt-right that has overtaken not just American politics, but also our own. He displays a blind, almost irrational faith in his leader; someone who has appointed himself as their servant/soldier without realising that he’s actually a patsy. The show often mocks Liddy, as it should, but it doesn’t whitewash the fearless, militant, and very, very scary side to his personality. For the show to boldly dedicate a large chunk of that terrific finale to making him squirm before a tiny enemy, his false bravado systematically dismantled before his eyes, is particularly satisfying.

Liddy was among the many freeloaders and opportunists to attached themselves to Nixon’s cause, hoping that it would help them. But like virtually every single one of them who was even tangentially connected to Watergate, he became the fall guy. There’s a poignant lesson in there about sycophancy, and how irrelevant it is in the long run. When the tides turn, the show warns, nobody will be safe. Just look at John Dean, a senior White House advisor who was among the first to flip against Nixon. Even he got a prison sentence. The wonderful Dan Stevens plays him like a used car salesman in the show.

Most of members of the Republican Party that we see in the show—all of them men, by the way—are presented as bumbling fools. Which tells you exactly what Pickering and series director Matt Ross think about state of affairs right now. There is, however, a (very slight) sense that the show has missed the boat. Gaslit, the podcast, was a real-time response to the Trump presidency; the show is essentially shutting the stable door. And while revisiting the darkest timeline might seem a little jarring to American audiences, we in India can easily imprint our own realities on the series.

Creator – Robbie Pickering
Director – Matt Ross
Cast – Julia Roberts, Sean Penn, Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, Shea Whigham
Rating – 4/5

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