Aquarius Review – Manson Drama Hits And Misses

Aquarius NBC
Photo by: Jim Fiscus/NBC

There’s something about working with the ’60s as an era that gives a kind of open license to wander aimlessly through more themes than any plot really warrants. Aquarius, NBC’s short-run drama, has decided to kick that up a notch by having its plot actually be an aimless wandering through all of the decades themes, with Charles Manson as a kind of pseudo-figurehead of the ills of the times (and creepy boogeymen in general… or something).

David Duchovny stars as Sam Hodiak, a veteran and police detective from a time when you could knock a guy around a bit in a bathroom, and it didn’t really matter who his father was.

When an old flame calls to tell him that her 16-year-old daughter has gone missing, he looks into it. Said daughter, Emma (Emma Karn), snuck out to a party, and then met a young Charles Manson. The rest of the story is a strange, and decently provocative ride through an amazing soundtrack, and a kaleidoscope of counter-culture, as Emma falls down the rabbit hole that is a madman on the make, and Sam tries to figure out where said adventure has led.

The show’s theory follows pretty closely with similar efforts of the last few years, becoming something like Broadchurch the ’60s, but it veers off the tracks by paying so much attention to the other side of the investigation. That’s a selling point, in theory, but in practice it makes for something that loses some focus, some power, and most of its entertainment value. A lot of viewers will hit the door when they first hear, “I’m Charlie Manson,” and it’s hard to argue that they’re making a bad decision. The subject is potentially goofy, and you’re either in, or you’re out.

Aquarius TV David Duchovny
Photo by: Jim Fiscus/NBC

On the other hand, Duchovny proves yet again that it makes no sense that he isn’t a much bigger star. He hardly does anything as the show kicks off, but you can’t help but find yourself roped in. It’s one thing to pull off a particular role, but he manages to just walk around in a way that delivers his backstory.

The trouble with the show is that it’s trying to be so many things at once, that it doesn’t really end up being anything at all. The factual fictionalization of Manson doesn’t meld well with the investigation, and the investigation doesn’t play out as something you can get behind when you see everything from every side.

Worse, the show seems bound and determined to educate you about such a wide array of topics that it becomes difficult to listen to anything at all. It’s part societal thesis, part biopic alt-fiction, and part Dateline special on how easy it is to get your kids to take candy from strangers, and smashing them all together is a trickier idea than it must have seemed. By the time you get a few episodes in, everything seems to be underlined, and you aren’t sure where the lessons begin and era-accurate portrayal ends.

Are we saying something about the way cops were then, or just showing that they were that way, because it connects to the story? That one may be an interesting question, but with the spotlight on everything, you soon begin to wonder if we’re making fun of the way ’60s detectives wore their ties, or just showing how they did.

The show works on many levels, especially if you can manage to only pay so much attention to it, but it’s ultimately a kind of milquetoast wash by way of purporting to be the exact opposite.

It’s got a great soundtrack, and it’s delivered in a way that is hard to argue with, but the actual story falls rather flat, and frankly, may rightly irritate any number of people who would rather not watch the days and nights of a psychopath.


 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_84D_PsnNFY


 

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Los Angeles. 1967.

Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, “Californication,” “The X-Files”), a decorated World War II vet and homicide detective, barely recognizes the city he’s now policing. Long hair, cheap drugs, rising crime, protests, free love, police brutality, Black Power and the Vietnam War are radically remaking the world he and the Greatest Generation saved from fascism 20 years ago.

So when Emma Karn (Emma Dumont, “Salvation,” “Bunheads”), the 16-year-old daughter of an old girlfriend, goes missing in a sea of hippies and Hodiak agrees to find her, he faces only hostility, distrust and silence. He enlists the help of Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, “True Blood,” “Friday Night Lights”) — a young, idealistic undercover vice cop who’s been allowed to grow his hair out — to infiltrate this new counterculture and find her.

The generational conflict between the two is immediate and heated, yet they’re both dedicated officers and soon realize the need to bring Emma home is more urgent than they foresaw. The immediacy arises because she has joined a small but growing band of drifters under the sway of a career criminal who now dreams of being a rock star: Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony, “Game of Thrones”).

Ringing with the unparalleled music of the era, “Aquarius” is a sprawling work of historical fiction that begins two years before the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. It’s a shocking thriller, a nuanced character drama and, in the end, the story of how we became who we are today.

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Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.