'Slow Burn': TV Review

Enough new topics and interviews to stand on its own.
2/16/2020

Epix adapts Slate's acclaimed podcast as a six-hour docuseries that dives into the stories behind the stories of Watergate.

After the rhetorical wheel-spinning and constitutional inevitability of the past few months, are you still suffering from impeachment fever? First off: It's probably time to seek more advanced medical treatment. Second off: Epix's Slow Burn may offer a salve.

Based on the popular podcast, the six-hour TV incarnation of Slow Burn is a resonant dive into Watergate and its inexorable contribution to the fall of Richard Nixon, told in a way that will be borderline revelatory to those who only know All the President's Men and offering just enough new material and visual embellishment to reward those who have already listened to this story.

Still hosted by Slate's Leon Neyfakh, the Epix Slow Burn ostensibly begins with the same conceit as the podcast: You think you know the story of Watergate, but here are the stories that you don't necessarily know as well, the on-the-ground catalysts that were crucial in the moment but maybe have been lost in the swirl of time. Here again, those featured figures include Martha Mitchell, popular enough at the time to have been a guest on Laugh-In; crusading and long-serving congressman Wright Patman; and radio conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell. The series takes a fittingly slow-burn approach that doesn't get us to the Saturday Night Massacre and nascent impeachment process until the sixth hour-long episode.

Epix and series producer Left/Right (The Circus) may have less faith in their respective audiences than Slate did its listeners; the TV series feels like it has to fill in more rudimentary gaps than the podcast, creating occasionally whiplash-y pivots between "the story behind the story" and "the story you already know, just in case you don't remember it." Thankfully, it never feels insulting, just a wee bit pandering.

The talking heads, some of whom previously did the podcast, run a wide gamut, with the show making the most of the subjects still available nearly 50 years after the historic events. You've probably seen John Dean and perhaps Alex Butterfield talking Watergate before, ditto ubiquitous period historian Rick Perlstein (Nixonland), but there are captivating major players crucially captured on film while they're still around. Watergate burglar Eugenio Martinez is a key anchor of the third episode and Lowell Weicker, the last living Senator from the Watergate committee, is essential to later episodes. Simply by virtue of their youth at the time, many of the best interview subjects are the low-level researchers and assistants from various investigations — like married couple Mark and Mary, who had their first date on the night of the Watergate break-in and whose entire couple origin story plays like the best When Harry Met Sally romantic cutaway possible.

Also standing out are reporters like Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung, both in the earliest stages of their careers during the Nixon Administration. You may think you know what to expect from these two savvy veterans, but you truly haven't lived until you've heard Chung's very, very similar Richard Nixon, Walter Cronkite and Barbara Jordan impressions. Chung is one of the few subjects who directly connects the events of Watergate to what's happening in Washington today, though it's hard to imagine any viewer not making a few leaps when watching Nixon stooges rant about the media and looking to evade subpoenas. The series' exploration of what "bipartisanship" meant in 1973 and the complicated role it played in the release of the Nixon tapes may fuel nostalgia even from those who weren't alive at the time.

Visually, the opening up of the Slow Burn world includes trips to Miami for Martinez and to Mitchell's hometown in Arkansas, but mostly it's limited to archival footage. When it's forced to rely on audio, the series indulges visual expansions like uncommitted snippets of animation and pensive noodling around on a set designed to look like a kitschy '70s living room, forcing viewers to wonder if this minimalistic approach is better or worse than a generic re-enactment. The high drama of Watergate is, fortunately, gripping enough that Slow Burn is satisfying and timely without the additional flourishes.

Premieres Sunday, Feb. 16, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Epix.