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Home > Series Premiere of White House Plumbers (2023): A Review

Series Premiere of White House Plumbers (2023): A Review

A Goofy Tribute to Cold War Espionage

HBO’s new limited series, White House Plumbers, takes a Death of Stalin (2017) approach to the history of the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon. It focuses on the partnership between agents Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, who worked under the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet “the plumbers” to plug intelligence leaks in the White House. It is directed by David Mandel, the famed showrunner of Veep, and boasts performances from Woody Harrelson, Lena Headey, Justin Theroux, and Judy Greer, this new satire highlights the absurdity of those cold war ideologues who sought to stand on top of history.

Weak Characters with Great Actors 

How as viewers are we meant to evaluate the strength of a character? Is it their relatability? How recognizably human they are? If these are the crucial methods of critique, then the players in White House Plumbers leave something to be desired. None of the characters are particularly personable. Even moments that are meant to be funny or humanizing have a kind of awkwardness and affectation that are out of the ordinary for actors like Harrelson and Headey, whose performances often run cool. At points, the dialogue seems written with a punchline in mind, as if the performers approach every interaction having been over-rehearsed. Sometimes the dialog seems more concerned with establishing the lore of the 1970s than having the character of that time emerge naturally through the characters. For instance, there might be a joke about the Gulf of Tonkin followed by another about the Bay of Pigs, and as a viewer you wonder, “Would people really have jokes on hand about these things?”

Thematic Awkwardness

But perhaps these overwrought attributes are unavoidable in a story about this era of espionage. It seems that central to the message of the program, is the notion that intelligence work has many barriers to entry: connections, idealism, ruthlessness, education, a casual disregard for life (that of yourself and others), etc. The very few people who can muster all of these qualities are necessarily unrounded for the rest of their lives. Through Harrelson, we meet Howard E. Hunt, an ultra-right-wing CIA operative, responsible for the botched reinvasion of Cuba (known colloquially as “Bay of Pigs”). In his partner, played by Theroux, we meet G. Gordon Liddy, one of history’s most notorious political figures, whose affinity for Nazi history and anti-communist zeal is off-putting even to Hunt. Together they are like deep sea creatures who can only survive in the darkness and extreme pressure of their seedy little worlds and who have adapted to these conditions to a detrimental effect. Both of them are slightly repugnant to everyone else working in politics and even their own families.

A Day-Glo Approach to the 70s Whitehouse

The Slick 70s feel of the show is perhaps its best selling point, including music, cars, costumes, and sets of the time. One of the more aesthetically revealing scenes comes when the principals have to visit a CIA safehouse to get fitted for a black op. The place is full of wigs, glasses, extremely bold suits, and advanced CIA gadgetry like walkie-talkies with 6-foot antennae and shoe wedges that make you appear to walk with a limp.

A Lukewarm Political Satire

For viewers who are more interested in easily digestible pieces of history than funny jokes or well-fleshed-out relationships between real human beings, then this is a show to keep an eye on. It seems to capture the paranoia and resultant idealism (or vice versa) of the Cold War Era, and it definitely has an interesting premise and angle into the psychology of the people who work in the DC shadows. However, when it comes to delivering characters whose development is compelling, this show fails.

If viewers would like to see how well they could keep quiet with dark secrets, White House Plumbers is currently streaming on HBO Max.

White House Plumbers 2023 HBO Official Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Noah is a Chicago based writer. He loves David Cronenberg, the Black Hawks, and DeepDish Pizza.