Can HBO’s ‘White House Plumbers’ Make Us Care About Watergate Again?

The creators of White House Plumbers, an upcoming HBO limited series about the burglary that led to Nixon’s resignation, are betting we still care about the Watergate scandal.

Certainly, there has been no shortage of successful, zeitgeisty works about the scandal over the years. All the President’s Men is the definitive version, an inspiring, Oscar-winning tale of the dogged journalists who uncovered the truth released in 1976, shortly after the events. Secret Honor from 1984 and Nixon from 1995 painted haunting portraits of the deranged paranoiac at the scandal’s center. Then came Dick, a 1999 comedy that skewered the whole Nixon White House by reimagining Deep Throat as a pair of naive, bumbling teenagers (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who bring down the president and his idiotic lackeys by accident.

On paper, White House Plumbers looks like that kind of comedy. It has a funny name. It is created by a bunch of guys who worked on Veep, including David Mandel, who also wrote for Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It stars Woody Harrelson and Justin Theroux, two very funny people, as E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, the White House staffers who organized the break-in and set in motion a chain of events that ended the presidency they were trying to protect. It sounds a lot like Dick, except in this case, the bumbling is coming from inside the (White) House.

Mandel swears it’s not a comedy. “It’s a drama, but it’s really funny,’” Mandel said to Indiewire. “We definitely walk a really fine line. This show doesn’t have jokes. However, there’s a lot of funny stuff because [that’s how it] happened. That’s the easiest way I can express it.”

It sounds like White House Plumbers will largely stick to the facts of the case (which are certainly ludicrous — the burglars wore wigs after all, and picturing Theroux and Harrelson stumbling around a dark office in wigs should have you laughing already) and hope that the novelty of his framing will pique viewer’s interest. Most Watergate movies spend just a minute or two on the actual break-in before moving on to what it considers to be more important subjects: the investigation, the cover-up, or, in the case of Dick, one teenager’s crush on America’s ugliest Commander-in-Chief.

Still, the biggest question surrounding White House Plumbers is if Watergate is really still of interest to the American public. It has been fifty years since the scandal that disillusioned an entire generation, and in the interim, American politics has gotten a lot more surreal and our notion of corruption has changed dramatically. In the wake of sexual harassment in the Oval Office and the manipulation of evidence to justify the invasion of Iraq, a Watergate movie in the 2000s might have seemed quaint. In fact, the only one to arrive in that decade, Frost/Nixon, had far more sympathy for the disgraced president than anyone could have expected when it came out in 2008.

In our current era, corruption is an abstract concept. The leader of one of the two major political parties, our last president, has had so many real, actual political scandals that it requires a work of serious journalistic diligence to even keep track of them, let alone parse their meaning. In 2023, corruption is subjective, extreme, highly partisan, and ubiquitous. A mere burglary could never feel significant or dramatic next to the horror show that is our actual political environment, which is why I’m skeptical that White House Plumbers isn’t more of a comedy than its creators are letting on. Simply dramatizing the facts of the case would produce a collective yawn.

But that isn’t stopping anyone. More recently, creators have been looking for untold stories in the Watergate saga. Slow Burn was a popular Slate podcast delving into the story of Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell, who was actually the first to connect Nixon to the burglary publicly. It was adapted into a largely-ignored Starz series starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn in a fatsuit. There was also 18 ½, a 2022 historical fiction film that imagined the relationship between a journalist and a White House staffer who somehow had a copy of the missing White House tapes.

The mixed reception and mere existence of these projects and White House Plumbers show how our politics and our viewing habits have changed in the last fifty years. All the President’s Men, released in the twilight of Watergate itself, sculpted the story into marble, sparking deep analysis and serious thought. Years later, storytellers are still chipping away at it and using the pieces to make something new, even if those projects could never be nearly as significant.

Obviously, Watergate still has enough currency to get a green light. The question is, can Mandel’s blend of comedy and drama (and this great cast) find a way to connect with a broad audience and break new ground, where other recent other projects on the same subject have felt stuck in the mud?