Just before G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) embarks on his very public trial for conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping — all tied to the 1972 Watergate scandal — his wife, Fran (Judy Greer), stops him outside the courthouse. “Are you sure you don’t want me to be there?” she asks her husband. “Oh, no, no, no,” Liddy replies. “I am going to act like a jackass — piss off the prosecution, force a few errors, send the whole thing to appeals, and get it all thrown out. If I see you in the gallery, I might be forced to remember my manners.”
Liddy’s trial prep is but one of many, many bad plans the former FBI agent cooks up over the course of “White House Plumbers,” HBO’s five-part limited series about the inept burglars behind the infamous Watergate break-in. But few so succinctly summarize his perpetually cocky, off-kilter demeanor, or what makes him such a great subject for satire. Liddy is a jackass, even when he’s not trying to be. He pledges loyalty to men he’s never met and ideas he only thinks he understands. He’s so far up his own ass (an ass he’ll later invite prison guards to “drink in,” as he spreads his cheeks and laughs), Liddy can’t see his true character. He can’t fathom what other people think of him, nor grasp the strange effect his behavior has on others. But rather than worry about it, he simply charges ahead, deeper into the darkness, wherein lies not only his blackened soul, but perhaps the reason so many others like him keep popping up in, or adjacent to, American seats of power.
Created, written, and produced by “Veep” scribes Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, “White House Plumbers” tracks the same subject and many of the same characters as last year’s Starz series, “Gaslit” (where Shea Whigham played an even more volatile and vicious version of Liddy), but the latest account of the scandal that took down President Richard M. Nixon isn’t the stark, jarring warning Robbie Pickering cooked up. Gregory and Huyck, along with director and executive producer David Mandel, focus on the attempted incursion itself, envisioning Watergate as a farcical satire where Liddy and E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) can’t get out of their own way well enough to enact the illicit wishes of their president. By delving into the duo’s family lives, personal histories, and miserly motives, “White House Plumbers” feels fresh enough to entertain and provoke (in that order), while still proving as tough a watch as anything so concentrated on Bad Men™.
Still, for history buffs (and fans of Theroux’s comic wit), the five hourlong episodes should be a hoot. Not only does the well-known narrative dive into various nooks and crannies rarely explored in Watergate recaps, but Mandel relishes each period detail, from the Hunts’ amber-lit, wood-paneled home filled with colorful place settings and a bright yellow phone (which practically flashes like a traffic signal’s warning light), to shooting at the actual Watergate hotel and a handful of D.C. landmarks. Every door handle, cocktail glass, and office chair draw you back to the early ’70s, as we get to know Howard and Gordon, their wives, Dorothy (Lena Headey) and Fran, as well as a number of political appointees, staffers, and hired help — all cast to perfection by Allison Jones, Ben Harris, and Meredith Tucker.
Hunt takes point in the story, with Harrelson playing up the anger and anxiety of an oft-frustrated loser. When first introduced, Hunt is retired from the CIA and stuck riding a desk. He’s been scapegoated for the Bay of Pigs debacle and shunned by his CIA peers (the former being his opinion and the latter an irrefutable fact). His attempts at writing the great American spy novel haven’t been well-received, either, but he sees a new appointment to the White House Special Investigations Unit as his ticket back to Langley’s good graces. It’s there he first meets Liddy, when the two are asked to originate and execute various acts of political sabotage on behalf of the White House. There’s a trip to Los Angeles, where they break into a psychiatrist’s office in search of intel on Daniel Ellsberg, and a series of meetings with Dita Beard (played by a marvelously cranky Kathleen Turner), who they convince not to tarnish their cause.
Throughout their misadventures, Hunt and Liddy form a tenuous friendship while emerging as firm professional partners. Hunt clocks his cohort’s many quirks (highlighted by a carnival-esque dinner engagement at the Liddy household), but he values loyalty above logic, as does Gordon. Their minor successes, despite numerous missteps, bond them almost as much as their shared expulsion from D.C.’s inner circle, and prepare them (as well as anything could) for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, their shameful arrest, and even-more-embarrassing trial.
Harrelson channels the jilted white male rage and entitlement seen in plenty of his past characters, from HBO’s own “True Detective” to Focus Features’ recent feature, “Champions.” His Hunt is discontent with his job, his family (only one of four children takes their education seriously, which serves as a great, recurring “pot calling the kettle black” joke), and his reputation. In case it’s not clear how desperate Hunt is to be accepted, he half-brags, half-chuckles about being a member of four separate country clubs. His internal journey is a simple one — from unquestioning believer to a scorned skeptic, without ever finding clarity for his positions — and it can make the character a tad tiring. Such joyless buffoonery requires an underlying charisma Harrelson doesn’t tap into often enough, and Theroux finds almost too often.
For those who’ve enjoyed the puppy-loving actor’s fanciful turns in “Maniac,” “At Home with Amy Sedaris,” “Zoolander,” and more, “White House Plumbers” offers a historical stage for comparable extremism. Where Theroux could push the fictitious Dr. James K. Mantleray or cartoonish Space Captain to (magnificent) unchecked excess, here he has to keep Liddy grounded in his own twisted little reality. That can be hard to do when he’s pulling a gun on neighborhood kids or blasting Nazi speeches over cocktail hour, but Theroux dances on the line more often than he trips — and simply by knowing how to two-step, he enlivens a familiar story with an utterly unfamiliar presence.
“White House Plumbers” likely won’t go down as the definitive Watergate tale (though a voice in Episode 4 sure seems like a nod toward one classic film), and its tone may be too indefinite to attract average TV fans. (It’s a historical drama steeped in absurd humor, just as it’s a satire absent “Veep’s” laugh-a-minute leanings.) Still, each element is made with such obvious enthusiasm for the time, place, and central story that it’s hard not to admire how the five-hour oddity adds up. (Plus, how can you not appreciate a show that casts Toby Huss, Kiernan Shipka, John Carroll Lynch, Judy Greer, and — in a one-line cameo — Dave Pasquesi?) Perhaps it’s a bit too mannered, but such pointed jackassery still serves a fine purpose.
“White House Plumbers” premieres Monday, May 1 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.