It might have all the hallmarks of performative prestige TV, but Gaslit remembers one key ingredient — it’s always highly watchable.
This review of Gaslit Season 1 is spoiler-free.
I’m very conscious of the fact that I want to hate Gaslit. Critics shouldn’t admit their own biases, since so many stupid people are convinced that proper criticism is about not having any, but I’m building to a point. Everything about this new Starz drama is finely calibrated for the benefit of Emmy awards and social media memes. Once upon a time, this was known as prestige TV, a distinguished vintage of highfalutin entertainment. It isn’t known as that anymore, though, since so many shows fit the label, it no longer means anything. Nowadays it’s something else, a specific form of performative television that runs solely on star power and usually works to reframe a well-known event, person, or period around a contemporary, often socially conscious viewpoint. Gaslit is this, in a nutshell.
But Gaslit also kind of rules.
The symptoms are obvious. It’s called Gaslit, for crying out loud. It’s based on a podcast, stars an unrecognizable Sean Penn beneath ungainly piles of prosthetics, and wants to redo the Watergate scandal firmly from the perspective of Martha Mitchell, played here by Julia Roberts. Penn is playing her husband, John, the attorney general under President Richard Nixon, as a kind of hideous a*s-kissing slug-man, the makeup giving him an otherworldly quality, like the beast to Roberts’ beauty. It’s an intentional visual – the actual “mouth of the south” did not, in the politest possible way, look like Julia Roberts – and it has the intended effect.
Watergate has been so prominent in popular media since the ‘70s that it scarcely seems worth rehashing the whole thing again, but in the simplest possible terms, members of Nixon’s administration tried to cover up a now-infamous break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C. Watergate Office Building, on June 17, 1972. Gaslit picks up five months before it, giving us an ambitious and pathetically needy but otherwise decent point-of-view character in John Dean (Dan Stevens), a White House junior counsel who finds himself caught in a plot – cooked up by Mitchell’s ridiculous band of merry men, including a version of G. Gordon Liddy played by Shea Whigham that is basically a cartoon supervillain – to spy on the Democrats. The political aspect of this story is like Succession by way of Spitting Image – Stevens is Cousin Gregging all over the place, and Penn looks like one of the puppets.
There’s a simplicity to how Gaslit reimagines these men of power and influence as, essentially, lecherous morons with a comical degree of ineptitude, that I found quite amusing beyond its obviousness. Dean’s conscience and intelligence mean he doesn’t fit in, but he’s awful in other ways, mostly in how quickly he’s willing to shelve his principles just to see his name next to the president’s in a memo. Given the clandestine nature of the scheme, though, he’s the closest thing to an everyman that the political side of the equation has, so he’ll have to do.
But then there’s the other side, which is Martha Mitchell. Julia Roberts’ face is emblazoned on the show’s poster alongside the words, “Watergate was wrong. Martha was right.” There isn’t any mystery about who the real protagonist of Gaslit is, even if the show doesn’t always treat her like one. The south’s most notorious mouth feels curiously hemmed in by Gaslit’s early-going, but I suppose that’s the price one pays to establish the stakes and build, carefully, towards darker material and a more central role for Martha herself. In any case, Roberts is truly fantastic here, and her ability to spar with Penn – both verbally and, it turns out, physically – keeps her from feeling too side-lined. Even when she’s off-screen, which is all-too-often initially, her reputation precedes her.
I don’t think I can quite put a finger on what exactly works about Gaslit, since some of it doesn’t, and what does is playing to a crowd that I wouldn’t usually count myself among. It’s obviously sharply written and is sometimes very funny, but I think that’s being too simplistic. Perhaps it’s just the simple fact that even among such lode-bearing elements – the actors, the production design, the historical basis, and so on, and so forth – Gaslit never forgets to be properly engaging.