Generally speaking, pushed premiere dates for movies and TV shows don’t indicate anything good. But when we’re talking about something as prestigious as HBO‘s highly anticipated five-part miniseries White House Plumbers — which had been in development since 2019 — you ignore a one-month delay because you trust that the network knows what it’s doing. Turns out, that was a wrongful assumption.
Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck’s miniseries is an odd disappointment because it has every ingredient to be one of the best shows of the year. And yet, somehow, it falls on its ass more often than not. It’s frustrating because the series even demonstrates the heights it can reach, bringing the kind of unmatched HBO quality we have come to expect over the years. Overall, however, White House Plumbers doesn’t fulfill its potential.
Based on public record and Egil and Matthew Krogh’s memoir Integrity, the story takes place in the early 1970s during Richard Nixon’s presidency. To ensure his re-election after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the White House launches a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in charge of “fixing leaks” that could hurt Nixon’s chances. These are the White House Plumbers, led by ex-CIA agent E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux). As influential and honorable as this department might sound at first, it’s not — but it does give a delusional and skewed authority to the two people who deserve it the least.
Hunt and Liddy are both failures. After they were fired from the CIA and FBI, they became virtually unemployable screwups in nice suits doing meaningless jobs. They both think getting employed by the White House (for a job that can’t be associated with the president in any way) is their second chance to be a part of the country’s Big Boys Club. Their blind loyalty to Nixon and deep-seated hatred for the left make them seem like pitch-perfect candidates.
The trouble is, they’re also irresponsible, big-headed, and boasting narcissists with moronic views (Liddy is a proud Hitler-enthusiast) and ineffective methods to get things done correctly. Every assignment they get (including burglary, bugging places, and gathering intelligence) results in a giant mess they spend twice as much time and effort to clean up. They’re also family men with supportive wives and multiple children, but the dedication to serve their country always comes first, no matter what. Throughout the five episodes, we watch them pile up gigantic mistakes that don’t just ruin their careers and personal lives but eventually lead to one of America’s biggest political scandals: Watergate.
Before getting to the flaws, let’s make one thing clear: the pairing of Harrelson and Theroux was a superb casting decision. The reason the show is actually watchable and mildly entertaining is due to their undeniable chemistry on screen. They play serious men who act like toddlers, stroking each other’s egos constantly, which makes the first half of White House Plumbers a silly, but at times pleasurable, buddy-comedy rather than a compelling political drama.
The satirical portrayals of incompetent and idiotic men doing dumb things with inherent confidence are the bread and butter of the series. We know Harrelson can bring his funny side on cue if he has to (think of Cheers, Kingpin, or Zombieland), but Theroux’s comedic performance here is next level. His constant hard-on for Nazi Germany and Hitler brings laugh-out-loud moments along with his extreme patriotism and voluntary loyalty that no one ever asks for.
David Mandel (who directed all five episodes) said in an interview that the series “is a drama, but it’s really funny. We definitely walk a really fine line.” If only that were accurate. White House Plumbers falls flat as a drama until its last episode, by far the best hour of the five. When the tone shifts to weighty, the way this infamous story unfolds is simply unexciting and tedious. There are no real stakes, tensions, or suspense that strike as enthralling unless you’re a hardcore history buff who knows this era inside out. As a regular viewer, the plot is a drag. On paper, it looks like the kind of material that’d be worth adapting to the small (or big) screen. It’s the narrative and stylistic choices from both the director and the creators that end up being underwhelming and uninteresting in depicting a historical era that was surely not.
What’s more annoying is that the finale perfectly captures everything the series should’ve been from the beginning. It’s a gripping hour of television filled with twists and turns as all parties (and their families) involved in this scandal face the dire consequences of their incompetent, stupid, and irresponsible actions. The essential humor that characterizes the show throughout is also maintained and sprinkled sporadically in small doses to keep its trademark tone intact. So it begs the question: Why wasn’t every episode made like this from the get-go? What we have instead is a dry, uneven, and occasionally funny political satire that leaves us unsatisfied. For a prestigious and long-awaited HBO miniseries, that just doesn’t cut it, ladies and gentlemen.
White House Plumbers premieres Monday, May 1 at 9pm ET on HBO and Crave, with new episodes every following Monday at 9pm ET.