Although the ironic mustache of Justin Theroux suggest otherwise, the miniseries ‘The plumbers of the White House’ (HBO Max, from Tuesday, day 2) It is not a comedy, assures its director, David Mandell. “Well, it’s not comedy but it’s not drama either,” he qualifies for further confusion. We could leave it at the tragedy of a pair of ridiculous men, the real E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (the aforementioned Theroux), former CIA and FBI agents, respectively, known for leading the attempted break-in of the Watergate complex that ended the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Familiar, but only relatively: that’s why their failed missions or their personality tics are so surprising and, if Mandel will allow me, hilarious.
Our interviewee is, whether he likes it or not, a living legend of (various eras of) American comedy: a kind of Zelig or Forrest Gump of humor on the screen. He’s rarely gotten anywhere first, but he’s gotten to incredible places, from the writers’ room to ‘Saturday night Live’ (between 1992 and 1995) to that of ‘Seinfeld’ (for the last three seasons). At the side of Larry David, co-creator of the latter, he learned “innovative sitcom lessons: the importance of moving the plot forward with each scene or how to build a climax from four stories that end up colliding in one.” David later recruited him for the no less innovative ‘Larry David’whose improvisational spirit led Mandel to his season (or, to be precise, three seasons) at the helm of political comedy ‘veep’.
Four break-in attempts
Due to its occasional approach to the Oval Office and its surplus of dangerously incompetent people, one could think of ‘The White House Plumbers’ as a prequel to ‘Veep’. Mandel makes nuances about it: “They are very different series. In ‘Veep’ we rely all the time on the joke, joke, joke, pulling good characters, but always thinking about the joke, joke, joke. This new series can be Sometimes very funny, but we try not to make jokes. Here the humor arises organically from certain events and situations.”
A perfect example is the fact recalled in a prologue that we believe to be climactic when, in reality, it is pure anticlimax. There was not just one, but four attempts to break into Watergate. The one we see at the beginning is the second. “Not even some political enthusiasts know that the Democratic Party headquarters were attempted to be broken into up to four times.”Mandel points out. You can’t listen to something like that without letting out a laugh. “But at the same time, we’re laughing at something that was a terrible crime against the trust of the American people. It’s an inappropriate laugh, something we used to do on ‘Larry David.’ It’s that nervous laugh in the middle of a funeral.”
Harrelson as Willy Loman
According to Mandel, it was “desperation” that led Hunt and Liddy to make mistakes. “Liddy was both a hard-to-please person and capable of very dangerous things, closely watched by his colleagues in case he killed (investigative columnist) Jack Anderson. Hunt also craved prestige, but was quieter. We were thinking of Willy Loman, from Miller’s Death of a Salesman: a man who is a shadow of his former self, who almost literally crawls through life, walking slowly, like Harrelson does on the show.”
The Woody Boyd of ‘Cheers’ brings relief and complex humanity to a rather fleeting character in other approaches to Watergate, including the classic ‘All the President’s Men’, Chronicle of the investigations by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward that uncovered the scandal. “I like to think that our show happens at the same time as her. It’s the same thing, seen from another side. In the movie you see Woodward calling Hunt and in the series you see Hunt receiving Woodward’s call.” Voiced, nice wink, by Robert Redford.