Starting with its title, NBC’s Aquarius is a TV show at war with its own contradictions. The year is 1967, and as the song goes, it’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius—flower children are converging on California, drugs and free love are flowing, but, sadly, there are still crimes to be solved. There’s plenty of weight to this “event series,” debuting Thursday, which among other things promises to tell the story of Charles Manson’s rise to depravity in the San Fernando Valley. But most of all, it’s a straightforward cop show, starring David Duchovny as a bullet-headed detective who has a few things to learn about the changing world around him—and the show’s rigid adherence to the conventions of that genre is its ultimate limitation.
In the pilot, a lifer sergeant, Sam Hodiak (Duchovny), teams up with a shaggy-haired undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), to infiltrate the seedier side of California’s hippie revolution. But their partnership feels as staid as the show’s case-of-the-week plotting—specific not to 1967, but to any odd-couple cop drama from TV history, with Hodiak as the veteran tough guy who’s not afraid to rough up a suspect, and Shafe as the young innovator trying to teach him some new tricks.
Aquarius has a little fun portraying L.A. police work in the late-60s. The Miranda warning is new enough that Hodiak can’t remember it, and he frequently struggles to recite it to every collar he hauls in. But given the grim tenor of the show, NBC could have done even more to coax humor out of the unique time period and place. Meanwhile, the network has spared no expense on the show’s music, a greatest-hits medley of late-60s classic rock that fits nicely with the slightly grimy visuals and retro opening titles. Going vintage is perfectly appropriate in those instances—it’s just a shame the plotting feels so similarly old-fashioned and unoriginal.
Aquarius is being positioned by NBC as a miniseries—though its creator says there’s more story for future seasons if it does well, its “event” positioning at the start of summer suggests that the network considers it a potential one-time deal. In an unusual experiment, NBC is putting the entire series online the day after it premieres, while also airing it week-to-week—a mix of the Netflix binge-streaming approach and the model that it’s relied on for some 75 years. This strategy also reflects the two-pronged nature of Aquarius’s 13-episode story arc, which charts Hodiak’s week-by-week descent into the hippie underworld, and his longer-term investigation into Charles Manson’s growing Family.
The involvement of Manson (played by Gethin Anthony, best known as Renly Baratheon on Game of Thrones) is ostensibly Aquarius’ biggest hook, since it can blend its staid cases of the week with the much more lurid true-crime material of Manson’s cult. However, anyone looking for real drama should check the date again: Aquarius is set in 1967, and the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders that earned Manson’s notoriety didn’t happen until 1969, bringing a chilling end to the movement that’s only beginning in Aquarius’ first season. Anyone watching will know what Manson and his cultists will ultimately be capable of—but that’s likely several TV seasons down the road, and Hodiak isn’t going to change history. So why involve Manson at all?
The answer is a sad one: Even though Manson’s crimes have been thoroughly dissected in books, films, and TV shows over the years, it still makes for reliable, exploitative crime-show fodder. Forgetting its 60s setting, Aquarius might as well be The Following or Criminal Minds or innumerable other network crime shows that wring drama from sexual victimization—especially of young women. Manson is introduced via one of his newest inductees, Emma Karn (played by Emma Dumont, formerly of Bunheads), who’s drawn to the communal lifestyle of his group but is quickly coerced into sexual servitude. Manson was, of course, a serial abuser of women (and men), but he’s also the charismatic co-star of this drama, and the show tries to present the ugly truths of his crimes while also conveying a sense of his magnetism.
But it doesn’t work. A lot of that is to blame on Anthony’s performance—he wisely shies away from going too big, since Manson has been portrayed onscreen as a raving lunatic several times already. Instead, he makes the regrettable decision to alternate between charming and sullenly evil, talking up his music to record producers in one scene and holding a straight razor to his latest victim’s throat in the next. It’s a facile portrayal of villainy, and it reeks of the cop-show laziness that Aquarius can’t shake even with its period flair. Every time the show looks like it might wade into ambiguous territory, it snaps back to that dull morality: Manson is a bad man, Hodiak the hero who must hunt him down. It’s hard to disagree, but it’s also hard to really care.
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