When “MURDER. MADNESS. MANSON” is your tagline, it seems oddly restrained to eschew exclamation points. But lovers of obviousness can rest easy knowing that this punctuation choice was the only bit of subtlety indulged in by the creators of the new NBC drama Aquarius (Thursdays at 9 p.m.; all 13 episodes available on NBC.com starting May 29).
The first hint that Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) might be a heavy hitter is when he begins his day by … pounding a heavy bag right there in his apartment. He’s a Los Angeles homicide cop who wears his hair high and tight and looks slick in a dark suit and skinny tie. But he starts his car by hotwiring it, and almost every scene in his apartment has a guitar in the shot, so he might be a square, but he’s a cool square, ya dig?
It’s 1967, and everything is changing: Guys are growing their hair long, teenagers are marching in the streets, and just about everyone but Hodiak is leaning heavily on drink and drugs. It’s the Summer of Love, but since the show’s focus is on the shocking ease with which America’s youth are hooking up, rather than the restrictive conventions they’ve recently been liberated from, all that free love seems terrifying—especially for the parents of teenager Emma Karn (Emma Dumont, a former Bunhead), who has run away from home and is hanging out with a wannabe musician named Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony).
There’s something cheap about using a monster like Manson as the Big Bad on a police procedural. Well, it’s sort of Manson. A disclaimer announces, “Inspired in part by historical events, this program contains fictitious characters, places and circumstances.” Or, as Anthony puts it more explicitly in a promotional interview, “We’re not presenting a biography of [Manson’s] life during those years; we’re presenting a paradigm of that story.” In other words, our charismatic creep is Marlie Chanson, just a random 33-year-old who, like Manson, had by this point spent more than half his life behind bars for a sickening range of heinous crimes. But, hey, if thinking of him as the guy who will spark the murders of Sharon Tate and six others two years later ups Aquarius’ dramatic stakes, then great. It’s a sordid shortcut that seems dishonest and exploitative in a way that Law & Order’s “ripped from the headlines” parallel universe, or even Mad Men’s much-denied-but-undoubtedly-present links between Megan Draper and Sharon Tate, never did.
Hodiak agrees to look for Emma because he was once in love with Grace, her mother. Grace is now unhappily married to Kenny Karn, played by the brilliant Brian F. O’Byrne. As anyone who has seen him act before knows, O’Byrne is quite capable of portraying complicated characters—but in Aquarius it’s as if he’s taking instructions from two different directors, one of whom is telling him to project mean-guy toughness while the other orders him to play Kenny as a simpering coward. We soon learn that Manson’s targeting of Emma is far from random—it’s all part of a shadowy scheme that involves Kenny and his bullying boss. If there’s one thing that seems less palatable than a fictionalized exploration of Charlie Manson’s psyche, it’s a story that places Manson’s crimes at the center of a vast business world conspiracy.
The cast of characters isn’t the only graceless thing about the show. Aquarius’ dialogue often sounds like newspaper headlines strung together—“The Love Generation Plays Rough,” Hodiak tells his young partner at one point, so pointedly you can almost hear the title casing. As in many period shows, the creators use music to set the mood, but here the songs of the ’60s are programmed by a DJ with a very short attention span. The snatches are so brief, there sometimes isn’t time to pull out your phone, much less to ask Shazam to ID it.
When he’s not tracking Emma to Manson’s lair, Hodiak has murders to investigate, many of which heavy-handedly rest on the dramatic changes Los Angeles is undergoing. Those transformations—to the city, the family, the role of the police, and even America’s place in the world—are the real subject of the show. It’s a crime that such amazing source material is treated so superficially.