“White House Plumbers” goes from goofy to gripping exploration of dark U.S. history

Government spooks, kooks and fuck-ups manage to bring down American president

White House Plumbers
Where: Crave
What: Miniseries, 5 episodes, 55 mins.
When: Mon., May 1, new episodes weekly
Genre: Historical drama
Rating: NNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: Quickly pivots from goofy to gripping as Woody Harrelson leads a solid cast of oddballs and fuck-ups who end up helping bring down U.S. president Richard Nixon.

PLAYED ALMOST FOR LAUGHS at the beginning, this star-studded dramatization of the Watergate stumble-bums (the “dirty tricks” team of CIA, FBI and Bay of Pigs veterans) who inadvertently helped bring down Richard Nixon is a stylized miniseries that becomes a serious exploration of a major stain on American history. It’s also a personal story of what men will do for loyalty.

Woody Harrelson is superb as Howard Hunt, a one-time CIA spook eager to do whatever it takes to help Nixon and “fight Communists.” Harrelson manages to make this narrow-minded family man sympathetic as he processes betrayal while striving to be a better father and husband. Harrelson’s performance is particularly strong and nuanced in a cast of solid performances.

Lena Heady is impressive as Hunt’s wife, Dorothy, an ex-spy herself. She’s anything but a passive housewife; her own street smarts help him navigate the mess he ends up in.

Justin Theroux creeps towards cartoonish with his over-the-top portrayal of perhaps the weirdest of The Plumbers, Nazi-sympathizing Gordon Liddy.

The fluid relationship between Hunt and Liddy is at the core of this story as each man wrestles with the implications, and his own meaning, of being a patriot.

The series gets stronger with each episode, initially flirting with being a goofy caper flick, almost like a political Ocean’s 11. That’s until the gravitas of The Plumbers’ epic fuck-up and the following betrayal by Nixon and the bosses lock the series into more serious storytelling.

Whether you’re a Woodward-and-Bernstein-loving boomer or think of The Simpsons rather than the disgraced president when you hear the name Milhouse, White House Plumbers works as a compelling story of political double-dealing, the costs of blind loyalty and a meaningful family drama — all with great ’70s style and art direction.

No matter how deeply you’ve dug into Watergate details, there will be new information here, which seems almost unbelievable considering how thoroughly this time of infamy has been explored.