The Starz Limited Series ‘Gaslit’ Was Inspired by Slate’s ‘Slow Burn’ Podcast

The massive growth in podcast listeners over the last few years has spurred several popular podcasts to be greenlit as TV series or movies. One of the most eye-catching examples of this is Gaslit. The upcoming Starz limited series about the Watergate scandal features a dynamic cast of actors.

Starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn, Gaslit uses the Slow Burn podcast as its entrypoint into a more personal narrative about an iconic scandal in U.S. political history. 

Slate’s ‘Slow Burn’ podcast took on Watergate in Season 1

Slow Burn is a narrative podcast series focusing on a singular event in American culture and exploring its context, the immediate reaction, and the legacy of how it shaped the world. As of now, six seasons of the Slate podcast exist, with the Watergate scandal being the first subject in 2017. The other seasons cover Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky’s scandal, the deaths of Tupac and Biggie, the rise of David Duke, the road to the Iraq War, and the 1992 LA Riots.

Hosted by Leon Neyfakh, the eight-episode first season sought to widen the scope of the event — past the two corrupt presidents who attempted to use illegal means to win elections — to understand how America at large dealt with the scandal.

The debut episode focuses on the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell, Martha Mitchell, who was tranquilized and held prisoner to keep her from telling reporters what she knew about Watergate. Martha was generally discredited and forgotten in the aftermath of the scandal. 

The creator of ‘Gaslit’ had wanted to make a project about Richard Nixon for years

In reality, many powerful people worked to make Martha insignificant during and after Watergate. But Slow Burn reclaimed her humanity on much better terms. Now, she is the subject of a buzzworthy show that debuts on April 24, 2022.

In GaslitJulia Roberts portrays Martha and Sean Penn plays her husband John. Penn hides under prosthetics a la Colin Farrell in The Batman. Celebrated actors fill out the rest of the cast; Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, and Shea Whigham to name a few. 

For Roberts, this project is a sequel of sorts. Her last big role was in the first season of Homecoming, another TV show based on a podcast. In the psychological thriller, the central character is also a woman under state-sanctioned duress. Directed and produced by Sam Esmail of Mr. Robot fame, his production company Esmail Corp also signed on to help create Gaslit

The show is created by Robbie Pickering, a veteran writer who most notably worked on the last season of Mr. Robot. This is his first time as the showrunner. Fittingly, Gaslit is a story he’s dreamed of telling for years. Pickering is self-admittedly obsessed with the Nixon administration. In the past, he’s attempted to create dramatizations about this era to no avail. 

The Starz show tells the Watergate story from a different perspective

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts walk among reporters while filming a scene for Starz's limited series 'Gaslit'
Gaslit stars Sean Penn and Julia Roberts | STARZ via Youtube

Movies or shows about this time tend to come in the form of investigative docudramas. All the President’s Men is great, but it already exists. For Gaslit to justify itself, it must find a different angle worth exploring. Rather than tell the story in a formulaic way, Gaslit attempts to present itself as a layered character study about deeply flawed people. 

“The more you immerse yourself in that era and Watergate, the more you realize it’s not like those Oliver Stone movies, with these huge heroes and huge villains,” Pickering told Vanity Fair. “It’s mundane in the best way.”

Nixon loyalists treated Martha horribly, but her intensely conservative viewpoint also made her complicit in the political climate that led to her abuse. It’s hard to tell a tidy, endearing portrait of her. In the right hands, however, Martha’s journey can be emotionally resonant regardless of where you are on the political spectrum.

Martha reminds Pickering of the women he grew up around in a conservative evangelical household. He summarized them as “human beings who have a capacity for empathy and deserve to be empathized with.”

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