Television: High Soap Opera in D.C.

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In Washington: Behind Closed Doors, America's long national nightmare has been transformed into a long—and fiendishly entertaining—prime-time TV soap opera. For 12½ raucous hours this miniseries wallows in Watergate, re-creating White House horrors in the same pulpy style that characterized ABC's Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots. Though

Washington: Behind Closed Doors is not afraid to be as lurid as its title—or to fudge history for melodramatic effect —only literal-minded historians and unreconstructed Nixon fans will find the show objectionable. For everyone else, Washington is a riveting throwback to the time when Watergate dominated the tube every night.

It should be noted, if only for the record, that the opus is officially billed as fiction. The basic source is John Ehrlichman's roman à clef, The Company, and all the famous names have been changed to protect the guilty. Even so, it is not hard to identify such major characters as President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards), ex-President Esker Scott Anderson (Andy Griffith), CIA Chief William Martin (Cliff Robertson) or National Security Council Head Carl Tessler (Harold Gould). Lesser Watergate lights—from Hugh Sloan to Howard Hunt—should be recognizable to anyone who has seen All the President's Men.

Individual characters are not crucial to soap opera, but broad-stroked action is. Washington packs in more instances of official malfeasance than even the series' marathon running time would lead one to expect. Covering a period from Lyndon Johnson's 1968 abdication speech to the Watergate break-in in 1972, Writers David W. Rintels and Eric Bercovici manage to dredge up White House wiretaps and enemies lists, CIA assassination plots, FBI domestic surveillance activities, L.B.J.'s love life, various dirty tricks of the 1972 campaign, C.R.P.'s convoluted money-laundering maneuvers — and more.

What makes all this unappetizing material worth going over once again is the show's energy and storytelling skill.

Washington never dips much below the surface of history.

If it is more reminiscent of Allen Drury than John Dos Passes, it does present a complex narrative with surprising clarity. The Washington settings, from the Oval Office to the Georgetown salons, lend a nice air of authenticity. So do the script's lavish accounts of such Watergate minutiae as H.R. Haldeman's feud with Rose Mary Woods and Gordon Liddy's call-girl schemes. The heaps of dirt stuffed into the show amply convey the moral squalor of the era.

The acting, as in all miniseries, is wildly uneven. Except for Robert Vaughn's reptilian Haldeman/Ehrlichman and John Houseman's phlegmatic John Mitchell, all of the President's self-serving men are bland. The many familiar TV actresses in the cast are interchangeable, and so are the canned romantic subplots in which they appear. The series would have been smart to leave at least most of Washington's bedroom doors closed.

The sillier flourishes of the show fade from memory, however, whenever Jason Robards is on the screen. Fresh from his Oscar-winning portrayal of Nixon Nemesis Ben Bradlee, Robards now provides a quintessential Nixon.

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