Here are some TV shows and movies that NBC’s new police drama Aquarius could easily be compared to, in whole or in part: True Detective, Hannibal, Zodiac, L.A. Confidential, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Life On Mars, Mad Men, Serpico, and The Mod Squad. Oh, and Helter Skelter—which is where the trouble comes in.
NBC grabbed some attention when the network announced its plan to air Aquarius as a weekly summer series and to make every episode—even the as-yet-unaired ones—available online throughout the season. The weeks to come will tell whether that was an innovative solution to the growing problem of audience fragmentation, or a spectacularly dumb devaluing of some prime programming inventory. But there’s no need to wait on the outcome of NBC’s other big Aquarius gamble. Setting a case-of-the-week cop show in late 1960s Los Angeles—at the same time that violent hippie cult leader Charles Manson is establishing his “family”—raises one big, thorny question. Is making Manson a character in an otherwise fairly typical procedural a gutsy creative choice, or tasteless?
The answer is that it’s more the latter than the former—though it’d be disingenuous to pretend that the show’s not made more memorable by the lurking presence of a madman. Gethin Anthony (Game Of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon) plays Manson, who in Aquarius is a slick-talking Southern-accented stud who already has a reputation in L.A. hippie circles as a soulful singer-songwriter and an incorrigible lothario. Over the course of 13 episodes, Aquarius follows Manson as he woos women—as well as some showbiz bigwigs—with his music, his intensity, and his dippy self-actualization raps. Drawing on pieces of Manson’s actual history, songs, and sayings, the show explores how someone so dangerous—who within a couple of years would lead his minions to commit a series of brutal, ritualized murders—could’ve been nurtured within a community that preached “peace and love.”
Aquarius has an awkward relationship with its own period setting. In the early episodes especially, it leans hard on ’60s signifiers. It only takes about two minutes into the first episode before Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” pops up on the soundtrack, right around the time that a young couple walks into a groovy party at a hillside house and says, “This is where it’s happening!” But either to avoid the usual problem of retro costuming (where actors in old clothes and wigs have a hard time looking like they’re not playing pretend) or to appeal to modern young audiences, most of the main hippie characters in Aquarius are groomed and outfitted in such a way that they could walk right onto any contemporary series without changing a thing. Even Anthony’s Manson looks more like he should be touring with Kings Of Leon than hanging with The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. And one of Aquarius’ two heroes—a hairy undercover detective named Brian Shafe, played by Grey Damon—looks almost too ordinary, given that he’s supposed to be the department’s resident rebel.
The show’s other hero is an older, more conservative cop named Sam Hodiak, played by David Duchovny (who’s also one of Aquarius’ producers). Duchovny’s one of the biggest reasons why Aquarius is as watchable as it is. He brings real color to a role that could’ve been stereotypically square. While Hodiak is skeptical about Miranda rights, war protests, and the incessant chants of black and Hispanic activists demanding fairer treatment from the police, he also believes in justice, and is willing to set aside his prejudices to solve a case. Whether he’s using questionable methods to coerce a confession or going against his principles to help his AWOL soldier son, Hodiak is a fascinating, entertaining character, strong enough to anchor even a less ambitious show. (Between the name “Hodiak” and the Rockford Files-style font over the opening titles, Aquarius almost recalls an actual 1960s/’70s detective series.)
Beyond the Manson story—which plays out as a running subplot rather than Aquarius’ main focus, all the way through the season finale—the show draws its cases and arcs from the big social changes of the era, from Sunset Strip riots to the secret lives of swingers and closeted gay people. One of the biggest running storylines involves a female cop named Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), who gets drafted into one of Shafe’s undercover investigations and subsequently develops a taste for danger and glory that puts her at odds with the LAPD’s sexist power structure. Like a lot of Aquarius, the Tully scenes suffer from a dogged conventionality. In terms of the narrative approach, there’s not a huge amount of difference between this and any other “ripped from the headlines” procedural with serialized elements, except that the headlines here are more than 40 years old.
Adhering to convention isn’t always a minus. Even though NBC is offering viewers the chance to watch all of Aquarius online at once, this is still very much a 13-episode TV show, not a 10-hour movie. Creator John McNamara has been in the business since the ’80s, working on genre series both offbeat (Profit) and mainstream (Prime Suspect), and he knows his craft. Aquarius is handsome—with moody lighting and fluid camerawork—and has a network TV rhythm, with shorter, snappier scenes than most prestige cable dramas. Just about any episode could be watched as a drop-in, given that the “previously on Aquarius” clips at the start of each week pretty much repeat the same information. (If someone did want to try just one Aquarius, the best is the Christmas episode, where Tully sees two of her colleagues get shot in front of her and tries to reconstruct the crime in her memory.)
Then again, a cable version of Aquarius might’ve been able to do more justice to the Manson material, which in NBC’s version comes off as both overly tame and more than a little sleazy. This show has a pretty good handle on the significance of its milieu, and offers moments of real poignance and profundity when the older generation tries to figure out whether they can still rely on the justice system to help shelter and correct kids who’d rather be “free.” The key to Duchovny’s portrayal of Hodiak is that the character can look at Shafe—or his own son—and can remember what it’s like to be 25 and self-righteous. Hodiak’s worldview is that people are “never the worst thing they say or the best thing they do”; Aquarius follows through on that with a take on the ’60s generation gap that’s refreshingly sympathetic to both sides.
But then there’s that damn Manson, spoiling everything again. Even beyond the weirdness of characters casually referring to “Charlie Manson” as though he were Joe Anybody, Aquarius struggles with how to integrate the Manson family into the action without diminishing the evil still to come. It’s most successful when it sticks to the small details, like the squalid conditions of the Manson compound, or how touchy he could be about his rock-star dreams. It’s less effective when it’s making Manson into a dark criminal mastermind, growing in power episode by episode. There’s something genuinely thoughtful in Aquarius’ vision of a late ’60s Los Angeles defined by tribalism, where everyone’s looking for a comfortable place where their vices will be accepted—be they three-martini lunches, gay cruising, LSD, or common bigotry. But not all vices are equal, which is a point Aquarius makes too bluntly by throwing a Manson into the mix.