It probably doesn’t bear pointing out that Julia Roberts is one of the most magnetic and charming performers to ever grace the screen—big or small. Though in watching Gaslit, one does wish she’d get these kind of juicy roles on the silver screen again. (How was her last film 2018’s Ben Is Back?) And that’s only because then she wouldn’t have to jostle with a number of underbaked side plots for our attention. But rest assured, every time she’s on screen, the Oscar winner is incandescent as Martha Mitchell.
Mitchell, of course, played a curious footnote of a role in the Watergate scandal, and Gaslit all but bills itself as a retelling of that unspeakably timely government fumble/cover-up from the point of view of the wife of Richard Nixon’s then Attorney General, John Mitchell. The tagline for the show, after all, is “Watergate was wrong. Martha was right.” It’s clear Martha will be sharing top billing in this Mad Men meets Veep endeavor. Only it isn’t Martha who welcomes us into this at times farcical historical retelling. We meet instead G. Gordon Liddy (a fully committed and mustachioed Shea Whigham) as he addresses the camera and invites us into this world with an ominous monologue about the way we tell stories about the struggle for power: “For history isn’t written by the feeble masses, piss ants, commies, the queers, and the women,” he intones as he hovers his hand over an open flame, the only source of light in the frame. “It is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings. That is what it means to be strong. That is what it means to be American. That is what it means to be Nixon.”
With an accompanying dizzying string-heavy score, this opening scene is preposterous and over the top, masculine melodrama at its most histrionic. In that sense it is a perfect prologue to what is ultimately a comedy of errors about bumbling men whose inflated sense of confidence and self-serving narcissism go hand in hand. As played by Whigham, Liddy, who was one of the men responsible for the Watergate break-in, belongs in a Coen brothers movie. And there are instances when Gaslit really leans into the utter moronic absurdity that led to Nixon’s public ousting in a way that finds the darkly comedic undertones only a story as American as this one could provoke. The casting alone alerts us to this, what with the likes of Nat Faxon, Patton Oswalt, Nelson Franklin, Beth Hall, and Martha Kelly (among others) peppering the show’s ensemble, all of them handily ringing discomforting laughs in otherwise dour scenarios.
Perhaps that is the only way to tell the story of Watergate. As a series of upsettingly ridiculous episodes orchestrated by people who, maybe, weren’t the masterminds they thought themselves to be. (“What if they’re just morons?” someone aptly asks halfway through the series, as they try to trace how the famed break-in could possibly have ties all the way to the White House.) On paper, then, leaning into the gentle farce of it makes sense.
But that’s only a third of the story, for Gaslit doesn’t just want to chronicle the Watergate scandal. It also wants to rehabilitate (recuperate? reclaim? it’s actually unclear) Martha Mitchell. And there’s no better way to do that than to cast Julia Roberts in the part, putting her equally comforting and prickly Southern charm to great use. (“You know what you should consider?” she tells a woman at one point: “Bangs.”) Not just cast her, though. You put her front and center in your marketing materials, making your show—which cheekily deploys a buzzy concept that’s all been emptied of its impactful meaning—look like it’s the Martha Mitchell story. She did, famously, blow the whistle early on Nixon’s involvement and was, per the show (in itself based on the better-titled podcast, Slow Burn) violently cloistered against her will in a hotel room lest she spill more to the ever-hungry press in the days following the break-in.
As Martha, whether she’s holding court with the press or holding her own against her husband John (Sean Penn, buried under prosthetics), Roberts dazzles. At first seeming like a frilly, fragile wife, Roberts plays her as a canny PR machine of one whose loneliness has made her hyper aware of how she looks to others, only for that to make her all the more comfortable selling an image of herself than any version of the truth. When that rubs up against her husband’s involvement in Watergate, the friction she and John have over “Dick” (“He’s your life!” she needles at him), it all comes crashing down. Paranoia soon seeps in, and the picture-perfect marriage slowly and tragically disintegrates before our very eyes. By the time she’s pill popping and drinking ahead of her disastrous Barbra Walters interview, Roberts has carefully tracked the way a woman was handily discarded for the sake of the men whose careers deserved to be safeguarded.
Yet another relationship is also at the center of Gaslit: John Dean and Maureen Kane (played by the delectable Dan Stevens and the ever-underrated Betty Gilpin). If Liddy is in a Coens film and Roberts’ Martha is in a revisionist historical melodrama, John and Maureen are in a screwball Mike Nichols-esque marital drama that delights because of their two performances. Watching the two spar and later play drunken tennis in their swimsuits is one of the fleeting joys of the show. One only wishes creator Robbie Pickering had found a better way to balance this trio of intertwined stories. For in trying to juggle all three, he’s created a lopsided triangle that can give you tonal whiplash when you try to follow along, the sum never really jelling any of its sometimes brilliant parts.