[This is a review of Aquarius season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
The pitch of NBC's Aquarius is simple enough: a detective story set in the swirling sexual, racial, and political revolution of the 1960s, as one cop - played by David Duchovny - crosses paths with an odd, unsettling, and magnetic man by the name of Charles Manson. Better still, the Summer of Love setting makes it a perfect fit for a summer "event series."
Unfortunately, to describe Aquarius as an "event," or even a tale of Charlie Manson's beginnings is misleading. The look and sound of 1967 Los Angeles offer enough window-dressing to make the show stand out from other crime procedurals, but it's Duchovny who remains the show's biggest selling point - Aquarius' blessing, and its curse.
The story begins with a 16 year-old girl named Emma Karn (Emma Dumont) leaving behind her white bread home and distant parents, being drawn into the free love following of Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony). Though Emma's mother Grace (Michaela McManus) hasn't seen Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) in years, she requests his help in finding her daughter, off the books.
With Hodiak more than a little out of place in the L.A. underworld, he calls on the aid of Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), an undercover narcotics officer to find out exactly what Charlie Manson is up too. The combination of square-jawed old-timer willing to bend the law, and an up-and-comer with an eye for civil liberty is as predictable as one would expect. That's not enough to condemn the series, but it's the racial and political issues of the time given little more than lip service that is the real disappointment (so far).
Spending time on establishing the co-leads before delving into the larger world can be forgiven, and Duchovny and Damon are capable enough without becoming entirely generic, as Hodiak breaks the rules indiscriminately, more than happy to arrest an innocent man of any race to advance his investigation. As expected, Duchovny's ability to effortlessly add humor with a smirk keeps the atmosphere from growing too dark or oppressive.
The humor comes from surprising places, meaning Aquarius isn't as grim or depraved as one might expect with such an infamous figure at its center (and the heavy emphasis on Manson in the show's marketing). Perhaps most surprisingly, the series also adopts the expected 'monster of the week' formula, sending Hodiak and Shafe after more commonplace criminals while Emma drifts deeper into Manson's inner circle.
Had Aquarius decided to tell a story of cross-generational cops amidst the Summer of Love OR the police investigating Charlie Manson, the show could have been something truly special (though the "event" title still seems a poor fit). As it stands, the decision to divide the narrative between its two law men and Manson - perhaps seen as an engaging balance to some - is the source of the show's biggest hurdles.
To portray a villain as iconic and enigmatic as Charles Manson demands something special: an actor with a unique spin, or a plot making the most of his grotesque future. Aquarius stumbles on both fronts, simply telling viewers, not showing them that Manson was charismatic enough to draw men and women under his (abusive) control. The portrayal, as it happens, is the most obvious one: Manson oscillating between charming and affectionate one second, and quietly evil the next (paired with a chilling musical swell for good measure).
The wealth of TV spots for Hannibal - NBC's other star psychopath - bombarding network viewers won't help, presenting a clear example of the magic possible with a likeable and charismatic villain. Simply choosing a fictional villain may have alleviated much of the pressure, but Manson's presence was - and is - the show's main selling point. A point that, as we've stated before, is the most underwhelming.
Without any real glimpse into the mentality or motivations behind Manson's later actions (yet), the setting and cast remain the chief selling point of Aquarius. Network television has shown that there's always room for one more police procedural, and Duchovny's charm ensures the novel nods to a bygone era make Aquarius a watch-able change of pace - especially as its competitors take the summer off. If only the network had made that clear from the start.
Aquarius airs Thursdays @9pm on NBC.