TV Preview: Conspiracy and paranoia a perennial staple of television fare

By Nick Grant

Forty years after Watergate, the scandal still resonates.

Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford burned up the screen as Washington Post reporters in All the President's Men.
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford burned up the screen as Washington Post reporters in All the President's Men.

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation as President of the United States, so I suppose we should steel ourselves for a slew of shows about the Watergate scandal.

Discovery Channel is getting off to an early start tonight by screening the first episode of the two-part documentary All the President's Men Revisited. Events are viewed through the lens of All the President's Men, the 1976 film that starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Starting with a story about a "third-rate burglary attempt" on the Democrats' campaign HQ at the Watergate Hotel, Woodward and Bernstein's investigation culminated in the first and - so far - only presidential resignation in American history.

As someone with an unhealthy interest in politics and a love of 1970s paranoid thrillers, I was already pretty familiar with both the story of Watergate scandal and the way it was depicted in the 1976 movie, although I had forgotten some details.

It was good to be reminded, for example, that between the start of the scandal and Nixon's ignominious departure from Washington, Tricky Dicky was in fact re-elected with more votes than any previous president in history.

The programme's biggest strength is its excellent array of archival footage and recent interviews with many of the main protagonists to clearly unpack what could be a confusingly complex narrative. The discomforting question of whether such a scandal could happen again is also addressed, with experts largely agreeing the dirty politics Nixon engaged in have hardly gone out of fashion in Washington but that, in the age of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle, this kind of story would be shut down by spin doctors before it got any traction.

I was left pondering another big difference between then and now: Nixon's downfall was largely attributable to his habit of taping his confidential, ultimately incriminating conversations in the Oval Office, whereas these days presidents seem to be all about secretly recording everybody else ...

The documented "classic criminal conspiracy" of Watergate is often invoked in an attempt to lend a certain credibility to various conspiracy theories on the spectrum between plausible and ka-crazy - you know: "That actually happened, so why can't this one be real, too?" (Because the idea of controlled demolitions and hologram planes is stupid, you nut.)

The makers of new conspiracy thriller Utopia clearly aren't troubling themselves too much about achieving anything approaching realism.

The UK series is about a chat room group whose favourite topic of discussion is a cult graphic novel, and who find themselves embroiled in the ruthless machinations of an organisation that will stop at nothing to find the comic's original manuscript for reasons that aren't remotely clear.

That's a far from promising premise but the script is fast-moving and creepy. Most importantly, it doesn't take itself seriously - Utopia's meant to be a fun ride and the first ep is, up to a gratuitous torture scene that left me cold.

Still, I'll be back for more, because now I need to know the truth, however ludicrous it turns out to be. Dammit.

All the President's Men Revisited premieres tonight, 7.30pm, Discovery Channel; Utopia begins Monday, 9.30pm, Soho.

- Herald on Sunday

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