White House Plumbers: The HBO Series Retelling The "Stupid Watergate" Scandal

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White House Plumbers: The HBO Series Retelling The Stupid Watergate Scandal

In May 2017, comedian John Oliver mockingly created the phrase "Stupid Watergate" to refer to then-President Donald Trump's ever-growing litany of scandals at the time, including his reported contacts with Russia, the Michael Flynn probe, and his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

"A scandal with all the potential ramifications of Watergate, but where everyone involved is stupid and bad at everything," Oliver mocked on his monthly late-night satire show.

But if "White House Plumbers," the new HBO political drama series that premieres Monday, has a thesis, it's that the Watergate scandal orchestrated and carried out by President Richard Nixon's administration was, in fact, "Stupid Watergate."

It follows two historical figures, ex-CIA officer E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and former FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux), as they plan and carry out the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex.

"White House Plumbers" was the unofficial term given to the secret White House Special Investigations Unit, which was initially tasked with preventing leaks of classified material to journalists. However, the group's role shifted as the campaign progressed, with Liddy and Hunt eventually joining forces with members of the Committee to Re-elect the President.

As they say, the rest is history.

And, while the story of the scandal that eventually led to Nixon's resignation has loomed large in American media over the last 50 years, having been told countless times through virtually every medium, "White House Plumbers" is an innovative retelling of those remarkable events, focusing on two lesser-known yet vital characters.

"They were the ones that broke in. "There is no Watergate break-in without the burglars," director David Mandel observed, seemingly astounded that their story had been so marginalised in previous on-screen Watergate treatments.

While the series is classified as a political drama, its tone and content reflect Mandel's background in comedy, which includes writing credits on "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with Harrelson and Theroux playing caricatures of the two men that are almost Wes Anderson-esque.

"There's something wonderful and funny about playing overconfidence and stupidity at the same time," Theroux observed, qualifying his comment to acknowledge their intelligence. "They were both extremely intelligent men." "I don't want to sound stupid," he said, attributing their readiness to take such severe and risky steps to their fear of communism.

The series takes advantage of the fact that their experiences are similar to those in the Watergate narrative. While "White House Plumbers" is filled with outrageous mishaps and antics that are sure to make viewers sceptical of its historical accuracy, Mandel insists he stayed true to the archive and was "true to the overall insanity" of their story.

"The key historical things, including some major blunders, are accurate," Harrelson confirmed.

While Mandel recalls the stranger-than-fiction nature of modern politics from his time as showrunner of the satirical comedy "Veep," his prior experience didn't make Trump's return to the headlines ahead of the series premiere any less surreal.

"History was already starting to repeat itself, thanks to, obviously, the HBO marketing department, who arranged for Trump to be indicted," he said. "You set out to tell a particular political story. And, oddly, as you tell it, it only gets more important."

During production, the actors and crew spent many weeks filming and staying at the Watergate Hotel, which Theroux felt was necessary to help them understand the environment they were attempting to build.

"It's always great when you have that sort of tactile sense of where you are and that you're at the actual location where this event took place and you're walking up the same steps that they walked up," he says.

Because of his upbringing in Washington, Theroux is acutely aware of the city's peculiar energy—a familiar, almost ineffable conflict between its citizens' desire to effect change in the world and their unquenchable quest for power.

"When you approach that area where the marble buildings start to, you know, come into view and you just realise, what a crazy place," he remarked. "If your office block is this enormous white dome with statues, you can see how people can get an inflated sense of who they are."

Though Harrelson and Theroux, who served as executive producers on the limited series, had never met before, their chemistry was palpable both on and off screen, which Mandel described as "almost instantaneous."

"They already had this relationship that kind of only developed off camera that in some ways mimicked the on camera one," he said of the couple, referring to them as a "old married couple."

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