‘White House Plumbers’ exploits absurdities of Watergate

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In May 2017, comedian John Oliver tauntingly coined the phrase “ Stupid Watergate ” to refer to then-President Donald Trump’s ever-growing list of scandals at the time, including his reported dealings with Russia, the investigation into Michael Flynn and his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

“A scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything,” Oliver chaffed on his weekly late-night satirical show.

But if there’s a thesis to “White House Plumbers,” the new HBO political drama series which premieres Monday, it’s that the Watergate scandal orchestrated and carried out under President Richard Nixon’s administration was in fact “Stupid Watergate.”

It tells the story of two historical figures, ex-CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), who organize and execute the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex.

“White House Plumbers” was the unofficial name of the covert White House Special Investigations Unit initially tasked with stopping leaks of classified information to reporters. But the group’s role evolved as the campaign heated up, with Liddy and Hunt eventually coalescing with members of the Committee to Re-elect the President.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And although the story of the scandal that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation has loomed large in American media over the past 50 years, being told countless times through virtually every medium, “White House Plumbers” is an innovative retelling of those remarkable events as it focuses on two lesser known yet vital characters.

“They’re the ones that did the break in. There’s no Watergate break in without the burglars,” said director David Mandel, almost incredulous that their story has been so relegated in prior on-screen Watergate adaptations.

While the series is classified as a political drama, its tone and content are reflective of Mandel’s background in comedy, which includes writing credits on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with Harrelson and Theroux portraying almost Wes Anderson-esque caricatures of the two men.

“There’s something wonderful and funny about playing overconfidence and stupidity at the same time,” Theroux said, though he qualified his statement to concede their intellect. “They were both extremely bright men. I don’t want to make them sound stupid,” he explained, attributing their willingness to take such drastic and risky measures to their fear of communism.

The series exploits the fact that their stories are comparably unfamiliar ones in the Watergate saga. And while “White House Plumbers” is filled with outrageous mishaps and antics that are bound to have viewers skeptical of its historicity, Mandel maintains he stuck closely to the archive and was “true to the overall insanity” of their story.

“The key important historical things, including some major blunders, those are accurate,” Harrelson attested.

And while Mandel still remembers the stranger-than-fiction nature of present-day politics from his time showrunning the satirical comedy, “ Veep,” his prior experience didn’t make the deja vu he had from Trump’s return to the headlines ahead of the series premiere any less trippy.

“History was already starting to repeat itself, thanks to, obviously, the HBO marketing department, who arranged for Trump to be indicted,” he joked. “You set out to tell a political story that you want to tell. And strangely, as you’re telling it, it only becomes more relevant.”

During production, the cast and crew spent several weeks filming and living at the Watergate Hotel, something Theroux believed was important to help them get a better grasp of the world they were trying to create.

“It’s always great when you have that sort of tactile sense of where you are and that you’re at the actual place where this event took place and you’re walking up the same steps that they walked up,” he said.

Thanks to his experience growing up in Washington, Theroux is acutely aware of the distinct energy which radiates from the city, a familiar, almost ineffable tension between its residents’ desire to effect change in the world and their insatiable lust for power.

“When you approach that area where the marble buildings start to, you know, come into view and you just realize, what a crazy place,” he said. “If your office building is this enormous white dome with statues, you can see how people can get an inflated sense of who they are.”

Though Harrelson and Theroux, who both worked as executive producers on the limited series, barely knew each other prior to this project, their chemistry was palpable both on and off screen, the latter Mandel described as almost instantaneous.

“They already had this relationship that kind of only developed off camera that in some ways mimicked the on camera one,” he said of the pair, affectionately likening them to an “old married couple.”