Before he became the leader of the ragtag but lethal group of hippies, burn-outs, and hangers-on who murdered actress Sharon Tate and four others in 1969, Charles Manson was a scruffy pimp and petty thief with a gift for convincing people to do his bidding. Aquarius, a superbly subtle yet exciting new series, gives us Charlie-in-the-making — we know he’s going to do something awful, and we follow Los Angeles cop Sam Hodiak, played by David Duchovny, as he starts investigating Manson and comes to realize what this ratty little thug is capable of doing.
Set against the Los Angeles of the late 1960s — a nexus where the counterculture met the entertainment industry during a period of radical politics and radical wealth — Aquarius manages to evoke this lush atmosphere while being careful to keep its focus on nuts-and-bolts police work. Creator John McNamara, the man behind such terrific, idiosyncratic shows as Profit (1996-97), Vengeance Unlimited (1998), and the underrated remake of The Fugitive (2000-2001), has wisely opted to make Aquarius a hardboiled cop show that opens out into a psychedelic nightmare.
Make no mistake: Game of Thrones’s Gethin Anthony may be playing Manson, but David Duchovny is the star of this show. His laconic Hodiak is a cynical cop who drinks too much and scorns the newly-implemented Miranda rights law for arresting suspects. He’s just old enough to squint at the tune-in, turn-on, drop-out ethos of the hippies and feel a mixture of contempt and envy (all that free love! all those drugs!). Duchovny, sporting a boss buzz-cut, is really good — sardonic yet earnest, masking his inner turmoil with tough-guy bravado.
The show builds a political plot into the Manson saga. One of Manson’s new disciples is a teenage girl (Bunheads’s baleful-lovely Emma Dumont) who’s the daughter of attorney Ken Karn (the always-excellent Brian F. O’Byrne). His firm has ties to Richard Nixon and then-Governor Ronald Reagan, and Karn is also involved with Manson in ways I won’t spoil.
If you don’t know much about Manson beyond his crimes, Aquarius will fill you in on his absurd yet dead-serious ambition to become a bigger rock star than the Beatles. In real life, Manson formed connections with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and successful producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day and producer of such hits as the Byrds’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”) — read Jeff Guinn’s transfixing 2013 biography Manson for the details. In Aquarius, there are artfully transmuted versions of these and other real-life figures.
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Each episode of Aquarius has the just-the-facts-ma’am terseness of the episodes of Jack Webb’s great series Dragnet set in the ‘60s, combined with an interest in the mysteries of family secrets that recalls the private eye novels of Ross Macdonald. Out of this, McNamara and writers including novelist and movie screenwriter Raphael Yglesias (Fearless) weave in a gratifying amount of cultural history as the series progresses, including a shrewd portrait of the real, doomed Black Panther leader Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, played by Friday Night Lights’s Gaius Charles.
In an unusual move, NBC is releasing all 13 episodes of Aquarius online after the two-hour Thursday premiere. On one level, it’s an inspired idea — Aquarius is a series that lends itself to binge-viewing; you want to know what happens next. On another level, I hope this Netflix-style distribution isn’t NBC dumping a quirkily original show out there just to see what happens. The network needs to commit to a second season of Aquarius soon, because it’s really onto something very good.
The two-hour premiere of Aquarius airs May 28 at 9 p.m. on NBC. Immediately afterward, Season 1’s 13 episodes will be available for binging on NBC.com, the NBC app, and video-on-demand platforms.