“Nixon’s the One” was a slogan that Richard Nixon used in his 1968 campaign for the presidency, complete with the subliminal suggestion of “won,” which he did.
Now, it’s the title of one of TV’s most fascinating, frightening, and darkly comic experiments, a miniseries streaming on the Web that was, in a way, written by Richard Nixon himself. Get ready to cringe, my friends, from your cerebellum all the way down to your Bebe Rebozo.
Created by and starring comic Harry Shearer, “Nixon’s the One” is a collection of reenactments using transcripts of the president’s secret Oval Office recordings as its only script. Shearer, who plays Nixon brilliantly with the help of a ski-sloped prosthetic nose, floppy hand gestures, and a noir-narrator voice, edited down thousands of hours of archival tapes to come up with six half-hour episodes.
So we see Shearer speaking Nixon’s words verbatim, complete with stammering and misspoken fragments, to a small cast of supporting characters in his office, including national security adviser Henry Kissinger (Henry Goodman) and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman (Demetri Goritsas). With aid from Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler, Shearer specifically picked segments that focus on everyday matters more than historical events.
Perhaps the most interesting choice Shearer has made in his Nixonpalooza is to avoid satire and really any kind of openly comic tone. “Nixon’s the One” doesn’t strain to mock the much-mocked 37th president, so much as it lets Nixon be Nixon and, to some extent, ridicule himself. The filming style, too, is rooted in accuracy and authenticity; the film quality and color effects of “Nixon’s the One” are appropriate to the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the scenes are staged to look as if hidden cameras are filming in the Oval Office behind plant fronds and statues. Nixon remains remarkably untelegenic. You feel as if you’re watching archival videotapes.
The show serves as a kind of unintentional but strong affirmation of cringe-comedy classics such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Office,” and “The Comeback.” Have you always thought cringe comedy’s self-absorbed lead characters are too fake? “Nixon’s the One” is proof of how much truth can be found in those series. When Nixon is not obliviously spewing offensive lines about blacks and Jews, he’s dropping oddball comments about, say, the “soothing effect” of milk. His ongoing need to assuage his insecurity with compliments from Kissinger is pure comic pathos.
Watching “Nixon’s the One,” I could see just how verbose Nixon was. The man just kept talking, unaware of how awkward and inappropriate he often sounded, digging his hole deeper and deeper with each new thought, not unlike Ricky Gervais’s David Brent on “The Office.” But Nixon goes to much darker extremes.
“The Jews are born spies,” he says at one point. He also digs into the Jews while complaining about the IRS investigation of evangelist Billy Graham. “The Internal Revenue is full of Jews, Bob,” he says to Haldeman. “That’s what I think. I think that’s why they’re after Graham. It’s the rich Jews.” Blacks, he notes, aren’t smart enough to spy.
After seeing a TV show with gay characters, Nixon says, “God dammit I do not think that you glorify it on public television, homosexuality . . . any more than you glorify whores.” In another conversation, he compares Mexicans to black people. “They have a heritage,” he says. “At the present time, they steal, they’re dishonest, but they do have the concept of family life within, so they don’t live like a bunch of dogs, the way Negroes do live.”
One of the scripted shows that “Nixon’s the One” evokes strongly is “Veep,” HBO’s hysterical comedy about the cynical, insecure, and petty vice president Selena Meyer, who is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Meyer and Nixon have no qualms about being two-faced to the public, nor do they worry about expressing profanity, ignorance, and ambition to members of their staff.
“Nixon’s the One” also recalls “All in the Family,” in a strange way. As his aides and others sit listening to the president go on and on with his racist-infused observations and stereotypes, they might as well be listening to Archie Bunker. Both Nixon and Bunker were there at the dawning of the culture wars. They are cartoonish know-it-all figures, either of whom could have said: “Homosexuality destroyed the Greeks. Aristotle and Socrates were both homos. The last six Roman emperors were all fags. . . . Jesus, I don’t want to even shake hands with anyone from San Francisco.” In this case, alas, the speaker was Nixon.
Shearer, best known for “Saturday Night Live,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and “The Simpsons” (he’s the voice of Mr. Burns, among others) really makes “Nixon’s the One” into something more than a parlor trick. That’s one of the strengths of the show, that it accumulates into a full-bodied portrait of the man. It brings life to the detached voices of the Nixon tapes. Interestingly, Shearer had trouble selling his miniseries to a US network — it aired in the United Kingdom on the Sky network. That could represent continued discomfort with Nixon’s presidency, or it could just mean that “Nixon’s the One” struck programming executives as too static and too historical. Shearer’s solution was to put it on YouTube, where all Americans can watch it for free.
Hey, we earned it.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.