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New TV series revisit Watergate and the original 'Godfather'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Two new limited series take new approaches to very familiar stories. "Gaslit," which premiered Sunday on Starz, is an eight-part comedy drama about the Watergate scandal. "The Offer," which premieres tomorrow on Paramount+, is a 10-part comedy drama about the making of the movie "The Godfather." Our TV critic David Bianculli reviews them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Gaslit" and "The Offer," it turns out, have an awful lot in common. Both are scheduled around golden anniversaries. Last month was the 50th anniversary of the release of Francis Ford Coppola's original "Godfather" movie. And in June, it'll be 50 years since the Watergate break-in that ended up toppling a presidency. Both of these new TV productions, in telling their stories, focus on relatively minor figures and take a mostly light touch. Both TV shows also boast at least a few actors and performances enjoyable enough to make these new treatments worth sitting through.

"Gaslit" is based on the Slate podcast "Slow Burn" from 2017, which already inspired a documentary series on the Epix network two years ago. The early emphasis in "Gaslit" is on Martha Mitchell, the infamously outspoken Washington wife of John Mitchell, who was President Richard Nixon's attorney general, and before that, his campaign manager. The Mitchells are played by this show's biggest stars, Julia Roberts, and a heavily-but-effectively disguised Sean Penn. In the opening episode, John Mitchell comes home to find Martha entertaining a magazine reporter. He throws the visitor out, mixes a drink and begins to complain. But Martha holds her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GASLIT")

SEAN PENN: (As John Mitchell) I told you no more print interviews.

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) Oh, it's a ladies' magazine. Ask me about the (inaudible) for Christ's sake.

PENN: (As John Mitchell) I know exactly what you're doing. You're just trying to take the spotlight from Pat Nixon.

ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) I would never. Let me do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CUBES RATTLING)

PENN: (As John Mitchell) Do you really think that she, in a million years, would plan her concert just to be on the same night as your party?

ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) It's a fundraiser for her husband's campaign, by the way. And yes, I think she absolutely meant to do it.

PENN: (As John Mitchell) It was a misunderstanding.

ROBERTS: (As Martha Mitchell) The Bay of Pigs was a misunderstanding. This is an encroachment.

BIANCULLI: Roberts and Penn very good together, even in later episodes, when scenes between them get much darker and even violent. Another scene-stealer is Dan Stevens from "Downton Abbey" and "Legion" as White House counsel John Dean. He's called into John Mitchell's office early on, and Dean fears he's being fired. Instead, while Mitchell sits quietly in his squeaky leather chair, another White House staffer, Hamish Linklater as Jeb Magruder, explains what the president has in mind for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GASLIT")

HAMISH LINKLATER: (As Jeb Magruder) I assume you're aware of the intelligence unit that was set up in the Oval after this whole Pentagon Papers...

DAN STEVENS: (As John Dean) Right...

LINKLATER: (As Jeb Magruder) ...Fiasco - yes?

STEVENS: (As John Dean) ...The plumber.

LINKLATER: (As Jeb Magruder) Yeah, that's right. There's a CIA reject named Howard Hunt. He's the main guy over there. And they're currently graduating from rooting out leaks to rat******* the Democrats. And there is a desire to enact a similar operation on the campaign side of things.

STEVENS: (As John Dean) You mean you want to set up an espionage unit here inside the Committee to Re-Elect to spy on the Democrats.

LINKLATER: (As Jeb Magruder) Oh, heavens, no, no, no. Espionage - that's a big - that's a serious word. No, we're talking about simple intelligence gathering.

STEVENS: (As John Dean) I see. Nixon has 19 points on the Dems. The election is practically in the bag. Why would we risk that kind of legal exposure?

LINKLATER: (As Jeb Magruder) It's not our job to ask why.

BIANCULLI: John Dean has been the focus of TV miniseries before, most notably in 1979's "Blind Ambition," played by Martin Sheen. But while Dean is central to the story being told here, this adaptation by Robbie Pickering from "Mr. Robot" skips many of the most dramatic potential opportunities - for example, when Watergate prosecutors revealed to Dean that all Oval Office conversations secretly had been recorded by Nixon himself. And "Gaslit" spends way too much time on loose cannon Watergate operative G. Gordon Liddy, played by Shea Whigham. His performance is strong, but many of his scenes are weak.

"The Offer," which tells about the making of the first "Godfather" movie, also nibbles around the periphery of a well-known story. Director Francis Coppola and novelist Mario Puzo are characters here but not the major ones. This 10-part miniseries is billed as being based on Albert S. Ruddy's experience in making "The Godfather." Ruddy was a Hollywood newcomer whose credits as a producer before getting a job working for Paramount studio chief Robert Evans were topped by the CBS sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." Miles Teller plays Ruddy, and he's a very likable protagonist here. But "The Offer" is dominated throughout by Matthew Goode, who was in "The Crown" and "The Good Wife." He has a blast playing Robert Evans. And in this early scene, Ruddy crashes the Paramount lot and approaches Evans, who doesn't brush him off but starts a conversation instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFER")

MATTHEW GOODE: (As Robert Evans) You know what a producer does, Mr. Ruddy? They do whatever it takes to get their movie made. Now, what makes you think that you're qualified to do that?

MILES TELLER: (As Albert S. Ruddy) You know, I read an article in Variety that said that you started out selling ladies slacks and doing bit parts in movies, but you still figured it out.

GOODE: (As Robert Evans) So unknown (ph) computer guy creates CBS' hit comedy about Nazis. Go figure. All right. All right. You do remind me of me, and I'm a sentimental guy. And you caught me on a good day. Let's set a lunch, Mr. Ruddy.

BIANCULLI: Michael Tolkin is the creator of "The Offer." And he and Nikki Toscano from "Hunters" are the primary writers. It's a better constructed narrative than "Gaslit," although a lot more could have been done here if the story had focused more on Coppola and Marlon Brando and certain others. But with both these new TV series, I hope they inspire some additional viewings. The original "Godfather" movies are available on Paramount+, so start there. And for the best ever movie about Watergate, find and watch "All The President's Men" from 1976 starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Come to think of it, I'd love to see a dramatization of the making of that classic movie or of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," Steven Spielberg's "Jaws" and George Lucas' "Star Wars." How about it, Hollywood? Making more shows like "The Offer" is an offer you shouldn't refuse.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the Starz series "Gaslit" and the Paramount+ series "The Offer." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about new laws and regulations banning books and prohibiting speech in the classroom, including in Florida where there are now limits on discussion of race, gender and sexual orientation. And dozens of math textbooks have been rejected for incorporating what's described as critical race theory. Our guest will be New York Times reporter Dana Goldstein, who covers education. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA AND CARLO SAVINA'S "LOVE THEME FROM THE GODFATHER")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is our Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.