By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist
We are all familiar with people commenting on the moral decay of the “unheroic age” we are living in, a time where corruption and abuse of power are endemic. This perspective implies there was once a golden period in history, where a group of benign overlords sought nothing but the enlightenment and empowerment of humanity. Yet this erroneous, rose-tinted view of an imaginary epoch in history is shattered with a bold and brilliant series like Gaslit (2022-). The skullduggery, deception, and naked abuse of power are not limited to autocratic states in far-flung places in the 21st century, but are a prominent feature of governance throughout history.
The eight-episode series – which is currently streaming on Starz – received a lukewarm reaction from critics. This lack of endorsement could be seen as off-putting for viewers considering the vast quantity of material released on streaming platforms daily.
The story surrounds the Watergate Incident during the re-election campaign of President Nixon. Unlike previous attempts to portray this event, the focus here is firmly fixed on the major movers and shakers who conducted the clandestine scheme under direct orders of the Nixon administration. When the incident was exposed, it was blamed on isolated rogue elements in the administration, but not the chief culprit: the president himself.
Gaslit is a story of the courage and indomitable resolve of one woman in the face of adversity, who told the inconvenient truth that the president of the United States was responsible for this contemptible act. She is widely discredited and mistreated in the series, hence the title. She has her demons, but her willingness to tell the obvious truth that “the emperor has no clothes” reduces her to a pariah among the circles she previously frequented. The situation is also perilous for her husband’s political future, as he is the Attorney General of the Nixon administration.
The Academy Awards-winning leads, Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, deliver an Emmy-worthy performance as the power couple John and Martha Mitchell in this political thriller. The frustration of a generation saturated with the Jason Bourne franchise and 24 is understandable, but this show doesn’t move at a neck-breaking pace. Instead, several backstories are woven into a rich tapestry of political intrigue.
There are heart-rending tender moments in the series that are portrayed with empathy and finesse by Roberts and Penn, as well as a love story interlaced with the political drama. Penn, with the aid of prosthetics and trailblazing make-up, looks uncannily at the image of the rotund John Mitchell. Mitchell’s speech and demeanour are also carefully studied and accurately projected by Penn.
Julia Roberts rises equal to the challenge, with a nuanced approach to painting the character of Martha Mitchell that never reduces the plot to schmaltzy kitsch. The insecurities and strength of Martha were truly portrayed with aplomb by the Academy Award winner. Additionally, the show also features the British talent and once-heartthrob, Dan Stevens, as John Dean, a man who is caught up in this whirlpool of political intrigue. Both the raw ambition and the pang of conscience are executed with necessary emotional depth by Stevens.
Shea Whigham is a revelation in Gaslit as the malevolent G. Gordon Liddy, who drew the “fool-proof” blueprint for the Watergate bugging. His menacing facial expressions and thunderous monologues guarantee to put fear in anyone’s mind. Liddy, who never apologised for his part in the Watergate Scandal, died unrepentantly. This stubbornness and cavalier approach are portrayed to a tee by Whigham.
Ultimately, the series is a gentle reminder of how power corrupts even the most upstanding individuals. Does that ring any bells? This series is definitely worth your viewing time, particularly as we steer through an unprecedented political storm on this side of the Atlantic.
Featured Images: IMDB
Did the depiction of political corruption in Gaslit have you at the edge of your seat?