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'White House Plumbers' puts a laugh-out-loud spin on the Watergate break-in

The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson play G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in the new HBO miniseries <em>White House Plumbers.</em> The show premieres on May 1.
Phillip V. Caruso
The actors Justin Theroux (left) and Woody Harrelson play G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt in the new HBO miniseries White House Plumbers. The show premieres on May 1.

The new five-part HBO series White House Plumbers, about the men behind the Watergate break-in, begins just like the movie All the President's Men: The time is the early 1970s. The place is the Watergate Hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C., where some mysterious men are trying to gain illegal entry to the Democratic election headquarters there.

But all of a sudden, as in some alternate dimensional timeline, the familiar details stop being familiar. The would-be burglars can't even pick the door lock — and a superimposed message explains the confusing difference to viewers. It reads: "There were four Watergate break-in attempts. This was attempt number two."

Right away, you know this new White House Plumbers series is in great hands. Specifically, it's in the hands of writers and creators Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, both of whom worked on HBO's Veepand The Larry Sanders Show. The director of multiple episodes is David Mandel, who directed episodes of Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm. And the many executive producers include Frank Rich, who's also an executive producer on Succession. So this group knows how to tell a story in unexpected ways, and to find the humor even in the more serious situations.

After starting with that less familiar Watergate break-in, White House Plumbers flashes back even further, to the moment when the Plumbers were formed, and then takes it forward from there, through the various break-ins, and to the Watergate hearings and a bit beyond.

The principals in this particular telling of the story are E. Howard Hunt, played by Woody Harrelson, and G. Gordon Liddy, played by Justin Theroux. These two larger-than-life schemers were at the heart of the Plumbers, a clandestine group created by the White House to investigate such press leaks as the Pentagon Papers, government documents that had been slipped to The New York Times and other papers by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. They were called the Plumbers because, well, plumbers locate and stop leaks.

Hunt and Liddy partner and set out to, among other things, bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters. It's not quite a Mission: Impossible, but in the hands of this crew, it takes several tries, and even then, after listening devices are planted, there are problems.

The dialogue is rich throughout White House Plumbers, and so are the performances and characters. Harrelson is wonderful — exploding like Ralph Kramden one minute, simmering like Macbeth the next — and the supporting cast is a very deep bench, serving up unexpected treasures every episode. There'sKathleen Turneras lobbyist Dita Beard! And Lena Headeyfrom Game of Thrones as Hunt's wife, Dorothy! And Gary Cole as FBI executive Mark Felt – who, though he's not identified as such here, in real life was the infamous Deep Throat of All the President's Men. And lots, lots more.

Parts of White House Plumbers are laugh-out-loud outrageous – but other parts do make you feel for some of these people, and, of course, compare that scandal to more contemporary ones. It's definitely worth seeing, and savoring. All the President's Men is one of my favorite movies of all time — and White House Plumbers is good enough to be shown as a very long, all-Watergate double feature.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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