Julia Roberts dazzles in this uneven limited series

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in Gaslit

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in Gas lighting
Photo: Starz

It’s probably not worth pointing out that Julia Roberts is one of the most magnetic and charming performers to ever grace the screen, big or small. Although looking Gas lighting, we wish she would get those kind of juicy roles on the big screen again. (How was his last film of 2018 Ben is back?) And that’s only because she wouldn’t have to scramble with a number of undercooked subplots to get our attention. But rest assured, every time she’s on screen, the Oscar-winning actress is incandescent as Martha Mitchell.

Mitchell, of course, played a curious footnote about a role in the Watergate scandal, and Gas lighting anything but portraying itself as an account of this unspeakably timely government escape/cover-up from the perspective of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General’s wife, John Mitchell. The show’s tagline, after all, is “Watergate was wrong.” Martha was right. It is clear that Martha will share the limelight in this Mad Men meets Veep effort. Only it is not Martha who welcomes us into this sometimes eccentric historical account. We instead meet Gordon Liddy (a fully engaged, mustachioed Shea Whigham) who addresses the camera and invites us into this world with an ominous monologue about how we tell stories about the struggle for power: “For history is not written by the weak masses, pissing ants, commies, queers and women,” he intones, waving his hand over an open flame, the only source of light in the frame. “It is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings. That’s what it means to be strong. That’s what it means to be American. That’s what it means to be Nixon.

With a dizzying score accompanied by heavy strings, this opening scene is absurd and over-the-top, masculine melodrama at its most histrionic. In that sense, it’s a perfect prologue to what is ultimately a comedy of errors about clumsy men whose inflated sense of confidence and selfish narcissism go hand in hand. Played by Whigham, Liddy, who was one of the men responsible for the Watergate burglary, belongs in a Coen Brothers film. And there are cases where Gas lighting really leans into the utter silly absurdity that led to Nixon’s public ousting in a way that finds the dark, comedic undertones that only a story as American as this could bring about. The cast alone warns us of this, with the likes of Nat Faxon, Patton Oswalt, Nelson Franklin, Beth Hall and Martha Kelly (among others) dotting the entire series, all easily sounding uncomfortable laughs in storylines. otherwise dark.

This is perhaps the only way to tell the story of Watergate. Like a series of heartbreaking and ridiculous episodes orchestrated by people who, perhaps, weren’t the masterminds they thought they were. (“What if they’re just morons?” someone rightly asks halfway through the series, as they try to trace how the famous heist might have ties all the way to the White House. ) On paper, then, leaning into the sweet stuffing of this one makes sense.

But that’s only a third of the story, because Gas lighting doesn’t just want to chronicle the Watergate scandal. This also wants to rehabilitate (recover? recover? it’s actually unclear) Martha Mitchell. And there’s no better way to do that than to hand the role over to Julia Roberts, putting her equally heartwarming and prickly Southern charm to good use. (“You know what you should be considering?” she says to a woman at one point, “Bangs.”) Not just throwing it, though. You place it at the center of your marketing materials, making your show, which cheekily deploys a cheeky concept that has been stripped of its hard-hitting meaning, the semblance of the Martha Mitchell story. She famously exposed Nixon’s involvement early on and was, according to the show (in itself based on the better-titled podcast, Slow burning) violently cloistered against her will in a hotel room lest she speak more to the still-starved press in the days following the burglary.

Betty Gilpin in Gaslit

Betty Gilpin in Gas lighting
Photo: Starz

As Martha, whether in court with the press or defending herself against her husband John (Sean Penn, buried under prosthetics), Roberts dazzles. First appearing as a fragile, frilly wife, Roberts plays her as a savvy PR machine of someone whose loneliness has made her hyper-conscious of how she looks to others, only for it to make her all the more more comfortable selling an image of herself than any version of the truth. When it comes up against her husband’s involvement in Watergate, the friction she and John have over “Dick” (“It’s your life!” she yells at him), it all comes crashing down. Paranoia soon seeps in and the perfect marriage slowly and tragically disintegrates before our eyes. As she takes pills and drinks before her disastrous interview with Barbra Walters, Roberts carefully followed how a woman was easily rejected for the sake of men whose careers were worth saving.

Yet another relationship is also at the center of Gas lighting: John Dean and Maureen Kane (played by the delectable Dan Stevens and the ever-underrated Betty Gilpin). If Liddy is in a Coens film and Martha by Roberts is in a revisionist historical melodrama, John and Maureen are in a slimy Mike Nichols-esque marital drama that delights with their two performances. Watching the two train and later play drunken tennis in their bathing suits is one of the fleeting joys of the show. We only wish creator Robbie Pickering had found a better way to balance this trio of intertwining stories. Because by trying to juggle all three, it’s created an unbalanced triangle that can give you a tonal boost when trying to follow, the sum never really gelling any of its sometimes bright parts.

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