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Gaslit review: Julia Roberts enters her Meryl Streep era with wildly entertaining Watergate series

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Gaslit might have very well been an overcorrection of history, as creator Robbie Pickering stated in an interview. Gaslit displays its progressiveness in a tongue-in-cheek style that doesn’t lessen the dark undertones of its fact-based drama, at a time when television producers are tripping over themselves to give feminist views of previous events.

But arguably the most striking aspect of the show (which is based on a Slate podcast called Slow Burn and is about the Watergate crisis) is that, unlike a slew of previous films and series about the worst political scandal in modern history, it avoids the conventional conspiracy thriller route. Gaslit, despite all odds, plays like a farce, a dark parody of our times worthy of Armando Ianucci and Kundan Shah. “You were running a criminal organization for the President and someone got you an office at the White House?” one character deadpans to another, eliciting the show’s single greatest laugh.

Despite the fact that the film is an ensemble effort, Gaslit has a soft spot for Martha Mitchell. Mitchell, played by Julia Roberts in a performance that will very certainly earn her some major awards next year, is one of a few secondary characters that were implicated in the scandal but were banished to the lore’s appendices for some reason. This is odd, given Mitchell’s obsessive desire to be in the headlines.

The middle-aged southern belle was married to John Mitchell, President Richard Nixon’s former Attorney General, and was a notorious gossip. In the show, he’s played by an unrecognizable Sean Penn, which, to be honest, is precisely how I prefer my Sean Penn these days. Watergate would not have happened if it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, Nixon remarked in a famous interview with David Frost a few years after resigning from the presidency. He was undoubtedly implying that if it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t have been caught.

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She was, after all, one of the first prominent individuals to demand Nixon’s resignation, but she was quickly silenced by a gang of powerful men who accused her of being a blabbermouth (which she was) and mentally ill (debatable). She began questioning her reality as she neared the end of her life, impoverished and alone, deconstructed by the same press that had built her, which, I think, is where the show’s title comes from. Martha’s independence and dignity are highlighted by Roberts’ acting, even while she is aware that she is losing both.

It’s always fascinating to see how a historical drama is portrayed. The key is to avoid coming across as arrogant. That is arguably what distinguishes Gaslit’s work from, say, Adam McKay’s. Consider the series conclusion, The Year of the Rat, a fantastic episode. It’s a masterclass in tone balancing, fluidly transitioning from home drama to sad romance to absurdist comedy, all while relying on metaphor and symbolism rather than dry facts. Not just Roberts and Penn, who have a fantastic confrontation moment as their relationship dissolves under duress, but also the show’s top talent, Shea Whigham, are at their best in this episode.

The majority of Republican Party members depicted in the show—all of whom are men, by the way—are portrayed as bumbling fools. This reveals exactly what Pickering and series director Matt Ross think about the current state of affairs. However, there is a (slight) feeling that the show has missed the boat. The podcast Gaslit was created in response to Trump’s election; the show is effectively closing the stable door. While returning to the series’ worst era may be unsettling for American viewers, we in India can simply project our own realities on it.

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