by Josie Kafka
Aquarius is either NBC’s attempt at an “event” or evidence of a network attempting to unload a series quickly. (Given the lackluster ratings, I suspect the latter.) NBC’s broadcast channel will air a new episode each week, but all 13 episodes are currently available to stream on nbc.com, or via On Demand.
It's not bad. That’s the best I can say. David Duchovny, Charles Manson, sunshine noir, a great soundtrack that reflects the 1967 setting, a tortured cop who plays by the rules but knows when to break ‘em…Aquarius sounds like something I should love. But it’s a broadcast show with prestige-drama aspirations and no means to achieve them.
The premise is straightforward: David Duchovny plays Sam Hodiak, an LAPD detective and WWII veteran. He’s a recovering alcoholic with a soon-to-be ex-wife and an affection for musical counterculture despite his “high and tight” haircut. When a former flame asks him to help find her missing daughter Emma, who was last seen at a party in the Hollywood Hills, he agrees to help.
And that’s the big twist, which isn’t a spoiler at all, as it is supposed to be the show’s big draw: Emma has decided to join up with a guy she met at the party—one Charlie Manson, former pimp and current sleazeball.
Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon from Game of Thrones) does everything he can with the Manson role, but it’s hard to bring subtlety to a well-known real-life serial killer. Although the series is set in 1967, two years before the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson is already living on his compound, talking up his plans to change the world or destroy it or something, and building up his harem of girls.
Knowing anything about Manson make some moments ominous, but only for the viewer. Our sympathy is supposed to be with Emma, but she’s so naïve, reactive, and focused on the men in her life that it’s hard to see her as little more than a narrative pawn.
On the other hand, we have to know who Manson becomes in order to care at all, since Aquarius is decidedly not a 13-episode story of one man’s quest to find a missing girl before she is corrupted by Evil. It’s a procedural cake with Manson icing. The result is jarring: the second episode has an entire crime-solving plot that has nothing to do with Manson, which makes everything—character development, Manson, social context, crime of the week—feel rushed and weird.
There is some good here, most of it for the Fox Mulder fans. Duchovny does exactly the sort of job you expect him to do in a role like this. He’s a bit too cool for school and looks excellent in a suit. His deadpan couldn’t be deader or pannier. There’s even a rather funny moment in the second episode: Hodiak dons a pair of bifocals, and although nobody on screen said a word, I was a little freaked out by such evidence of my teenage crush grown old. A few moments later, when Hodiak checks in on his former lover, she teases him about the glasses and he wryly (of course he’s wry! It’s his thing!) admits he is self-conscious. If you like Duchovny but can’t stomach Californication, this will scratch your Mulder itch.
Those subtle moments, though, are thin on the ground. The supporting cast has potential, but some of the younger male cast members—like Hodiak’s partner and his snitch—look so much alike, with their mussed Beatles-meets-Bieber haircuts, that I kept getting them confused. Claire Holt’s (Vampire Diaries, The Originals) female police officer Charmain has a few good moments, though, and I hear that she gets more to do later in the series.
But the broadcast medium and procedural format limit this show. Apparently, you can’t say the “n-word” on NBC, so white LAPD officers use out-of-date pejoratives like “spade,” which lessens the historical reality of institutional racism in 1960s police culture. The soundtrack has excellent songs, but each is reduced to a snippet so short it’s like turning over the radio dial to a meth-head with ADD. (By the second episode, I started to wonder if a TV show can use 30 seconds of a song without paying for it.)
The historical setting is not without its problems. Frankly, the LAPD in the 1960s was pretty awful. The Watts Riots were in 1965, just two years before this show is set. The first episode includes a brief scene of the Sunset Strip “Hippie” Riots, but that scene was mostly meant to illustrate how Hodiak and his partner are good guys compared to all the rest, even though Hodiak’s past as a patrol officer in South Central surely means he’s participated in some nasty, LA Confidential-style shenanigans.
And, in fact, Hodiak does just that in the second episode. The crime of the week is a domestic murder: white people. Hodiak detains a conveniently-placed (black) member of the Nation of Islam in order to force the white murderer to confess. That young man is Bunchy Carter (played by Friday Night Lights’s Gaius Charles), and he will become the founding member of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panthers. All because of what Hodiak did, according to this show.
What are we supposed to do with that? Forgive Hodiak for abusing police power, since that’s better than his colleagues, gosh darn it? Admire the way that the show incorporates the plight of African-Americans into its portrayal of the flawed 1960s, even though it reduces political action to an “inspired by white protagonist” narrative? Admit that Hodiak has his flaws, like any good noir detective, and leave it at that? Wonder if each episode will have a little Forrest Gump moment?
A prestige drama—and an episode run longer than 13—could do a lot with that material. Racism and riots. Civil rights and war protests. Sexism and free love. Truly fabulous music, social forces undermined by mass rebellion. The 1960s are complicated, fascinating, and nuanced. This show, while entertaining, is not.
Two and a half out of four serial killers.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)