We’ve all been there: Sitting bolt upright in bed, suddenly remembering a pop culture experience we had years ago—particularly a then-negligible detail which now seems entirely surreal—and suffering future sleepless nights after confirming the detail in the morning. It’s Time to Talk About is our way of bringing these issues to light in hopes that such conversations can become easier in the future. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it.
If you’ve watched any original programming on the streaming service formerly known as HBO Max in the past month—which, you have—you’ve likely impatiently skipped over a trailer for White House Plumbers, the network’s latest miniseries dramatizing a colorful moment in American history. Much in the same way HBO introduced us to previously obscure names like “Robert Durst” and “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” and “Chernobyl” in recent years, Plumbers desperately wants to tell us about an ex-FBI guy called G. Gordon Liddy and his very famously failed attempt to keep Nixon in office by doing a B&E to the DNC—an impactful historical moment that ultimately led to the then-president flashing a V sign and a shit-eating grin before climbing into a helicopter to peace out forever.
While you plebes born after 1972 may be hearing this name for the first time, I, a very cultured genius also born after 1972, know all about Liddy from his 2006 appearance on a celebrity episode of Fear Factor. At 75 years old, NBC clearly thought he would be a great candidate to suffer through three round of public torture alongside the usual roundup of washed-up pop singers, daytime TV stars, and other out-of-work figures that necessitate a google search in the year 2023. Even by the series’ standards, the season six episode he appeared on—the series finale of the show’s original run, no less!—scrapes the bottom of the barrel, especially when stacked up against the memorable first celebrity episode in which Pyramid’s Donny Osmond, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie’s David Hasselhoff, and all of the other contestants valiantly pledge their winnings to extremely patriotic organizations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11—except for Coolio, who also wins.
Even if the descriptor “Watergate Figure” casually listed under his name in the episode’s intro wasn’t enough to ingrain Liddy’s appearance in my memory, save for a few obviously planted nerds or other antisocial types in the early seasons for comic relief I can’t recall a single other contestant on the show—and I’ve seen every episode; look, man, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in 2020—who wasn’t clearly hand-picked for a relatively new genre of network TV that mostly existed for the objectification of certain body types. Over the series’ six original seasons you can actually watch in real time as host Joe Rogan slowly becomes less interested in openly ogling the female contestants as they dramatically strip off their clothes in front of a slow-panning camera for the water challenges and more invested in grilling the yolked male contestants about their workout routines as we see the gears in his head turn to produce an image of the Joe 2.0 who hosts the 2011 revival, not to mention all the other chaos that ensued in his professional life. But G. Gordon Liddy? Not so much.
When he’s not prompted to recite autobiographical accounts of his stint in the FBI or prison, he appears in the periphery of shots looking stoic, contrasting with the vapid shit-talking the show welcomes.
There’s a really weird energy to the episode from the very beginning, when Liddy is led to reveal that he spent five years in jail (later noting that he was in solitary confinement for 140-some days) for his, uh, piping schemes. When he’s not prompted to recite autobiographical accounts of his stint in the FBI or prison, he appears in the periphery of shots looking stoic, contrasting with the vapid shit-talking the show welcomes. Whereas fellow contestant and Tonight Show announcer John Melendez makes deeply chauvinist comments about (and in front of) the Baywatch actress he gets paired with for his stunts, Liddy mostly appears paternal (well, occasionally lascivious) to his partner, an all-grown-up Vanessa Huxtable. There’s a hushed reverence when anyone talks to or around him, amplified by the sense of wisdom and fearlessness embedded in everything he says. Members of the opposing teams pat him on the back for no real reason. Tempestt Bledsoe randomly gives him a hug. Joe awkwardly salutes him.
In fact, it almost seems like the whole episode was set up for him to win—as if he was just another American hero being celebrated in an era when we were obsessed with celebrating American heroes (well, except for Coolio who, for the record, donated his winnings to an organization helping inner-city youths). I jokingly used the word “torture” earlier, but that’s almost exactly what two of the three stunts in this episode are: the first being a sideshow-like take on waterboarding, the second being an isolation chamber spitting sulfuric odor, maggots and crickets, blaring low-frequency hums, and electric shocks into his pod for two consecutive hours (counted up on the very era-appropriate NetZero Internet clock) as the heat steadily rises to 105 degrees—through which he remains totally unfazed, earning him a special side-pot prize: $130k worth of custom motorcycles. Even on the last challenge, a fairly intense obstacle stunt-driving course ending in an explosion and a flipped SUV, Liddy shares his qualifications for the event, citing his FBI high-speed pursuit training.
Between his heroic performance in the first two rounds and Rogan’s clear bias toward him throughout the episode (“G. Gordon Liddy for president!” he shouts at one point; later, when welcoming contestants back for a third day of challenges he follows his usual tactless greetings—“What’s up, welcome back. What’s up, how you doin’, what’s goin’ on?”—with uncharacteristic formality: “Heyyy…sir… How are you?”), it ends in hilarious anticlimax with Liddy randomly (“randomly”) selected last to perform the final stunt. After filling Joe and the viewer in on his driving skills, Liddy immediately loses control of his vehicle and speeds directly into a pole, crowning ’70s pop idol Leif Garrett Fear Factor champion with zero indication that the 75-year-old man who just totaled his car even survived the impact. If this conclusion wasn’t overwhelming enough, the episode then cuts to the short-lived Fear Factor Home Invasion segment introed by the most over-the-top animation I have ever seen paired with an intimidating voice threatening to send Joe Rogan to your Middle-American front door with a tour bus full of rotting fish.
It almost seems like the whole episode was set up for him to win—as if he was just another American hero being celebrated in an era when we were obsessed with celebrating American heroes.
Maybe I’m reading into this a little too much, but it’s interesting to contrast this (nearly) heroic TV appearance (why didn’t they make him eat bugs? The second stunt is always just “Eat bugs”!) during the conservative 2000s with Justin Theroux’s recent White House Plumbers interpretation of Liddy (who died back in 2021 at the age of 90; as far as I know cause of death wasn’t blunt-force trauma festering over the course of 15 years) as a dingus-savant. Even if Theroux isn’t giving 100 percent in the lazily written miniseries, the character he’s portraying has way more in common with the loony motherfucker immortalized for firing his pistol at the ceilings of courtrooms than the one we see in this Fear Factor episode. Maybe it’s because we weren’t all weirdly Steely Dan–pilled yet in 2006 that we were rallying behind the guy who aggressively schemed to get Donald Fagen put away on drug charges.
It may also be telling that Liddy’s acting career took off for a bit in the equally conservative ’80s with roles on Miami Vice and MacGyver, infiltrating the mainstream seemingly at random (he also appeared as a guest judge on WrestleMania and acted in an Encyclopedia Brown VHS featurette) only a decade after serving time for one of the most famous cases of American democracy being meddled with—a thing conservatives hate more than anything in the world, and a thing they clearly keep doing. It’s the same sort of PR damage control that’s become common when, say, a disgraced former White House Press Secretary lands a gig on a beloved mainstream celebrity dancing competition where he blends in with two professional athletes who are probably more famous at this point for doing things other than playing professional sports. I guess a white-collar-crime celebrity is still a celebrity, none of whom are safe from gracefully—or disgracefully—retreating into history books in the era of TV. FL