John Mitchell (Sean Penn) and Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) in...

John Mitchell (Sean Penn) and Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) in Starz's "Gaslit." Credit: STARZ/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle


WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT John Dean (Dan Stevens), a hotshot lawyer and self-styled "ladies man" who wants to climb up the ranks of White House counsel, finally has his chance: Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn) and his right-hand guy, Jeb Magruder (Hamish Linklater), ask him if he'd be interested in joining an "initiative" to surveil the Democrats. No, but he knows just the guy for this — G. Gordon Liddy (Shea Whigham), former FBI agent and soon head of President Richard Nixon's "plumbers'' unit. Dean still gets close to Mitchell, but his future wife, Maureen "Mo" Kane (Betty Gilpin) advises caution (and for good reason). 

Meanwhile, there's a loose cannon out there, and she happens to be the AG's wife. Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts) gets lots of calls from the press, and she happily takes them, typically after a few "pops." (Nixon, by the way, is only seen in archival footage.)

This seven-parter — based on Slate's "Slow Burn" podcast, about the events surrounding the Watergate break-in — was created and written by Robbie Pickering, former story editor of "Mr. Robot." Sam Esmail, "Mr. Robot's" showrunner, is the producer.   

MY SAY Forty-six years after her death, the name "Martha Mitchell '' still manages to evoke a memory approaching fondness. She was loud, brassy and a self-styled truth-teller who spoke to the press, and spoke often. Then, there was that hair. Oh, that gorgeous hair: A towering bouffant, the likes of which would one day be celebrated, unintentionally of course, on shows like "RuPaul's Drag Race."

Yet playing her, Roberts had to make a choice, and it couldn't have been an easy one. For laughs? Or for pathos? Making the right decision, as does "Gaslit," she goes for both. Her performance is terrific, and at times harrowing. There are some scenes where you will have to avert your gaze from the screen, so palpable is her pain — both physical and psychic — but Roberts wanted and needed to humanize Martha. She has (and how).

Embracing that much-quoted observation that history — or at least the TV biopic based upon it — repeats as farce, "Gaslit '' initially imagines Watergate as a Keystone Kops-meets-The Three Stooges caper. At first, it's played for laughs and for the most part, belly laughs. The downshift will come in due course, but you may as well enjoy yourself in the meantime.

The first head to appear on-screen is Liddy's. Gordon begins to spout ersatz Nietzsche, or maybe Ayn Rand, explaining that "history isn't written by the feeble masses, the pissants, the commies [but] 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 Nixon." 

Whigham ("Boardwalk Empire") plays "Gordo" like it's the role of a lifetime, and so over-the-top that he effectively comes out the other side. But much like Roberts/ Martha, there's genuine fondness here. His Liddy may be a psycho, but he's utterly human too. Also like Martha, he's the true center of "Gaslit," and in some ways, the best part.

Sean Penn as Mitchell? Stifle a laugh (if possible), then get beyond the prosthetics — about three pounds worth, I'd say — and you've got another memorable performance, as if it could be otherwise. Initially, his Attorney General is a boozy, foul-mouthed blowhard who expends most of his energy (ineffectually) trying to stifle Martha while orchestrating the Watergate 7. He loves Martha, but by turns becomes more toxic and sinister. Hence, the title, because along with other assorted cronies, he would gaslight Martha into questioning her own sanity.

Like history, biopics need villains and heroes. In "Gaslit's" telling, there were plenty to go around. 

BOTTOM LINE Funny, tragic, scary, creepy, wild, insane. Hey, what's not to like?   


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