Aquarius is back for a second season on Thursday night — a two-hour, commercial-free season premiere on NBC, in fact — and it furthers this fact-based detective story about a real Charles Manson and a fictional police detective, Sam Hodiak, played by David Duchovny. The season begins with Manson and his creepy-crawly crew in the midst of killing actress Sharon Tate and others in 1969 Los Angeles.
But that’s just a brief opening scene, one planted to remind you what’s to come. The show then jumps back 18 months earlier, to show us the trail the cops are following — not to Manson, but to other cases, some of which will connect to the Manson “family.” If you find that sort of tease annoying, you may not lock in to Aquarius, but if you don’t — and I don’t — it makes for a tantalizing start to the new season.
The notion of series creator John McNamara is to submerge you in the period and culture that gave birth to Manson and his small army of disciples willing to kill for him, and Aquarius does that very well. We see Los Angeles mostly from the point of view of Hodiak, who, with his tense brush-cut hair and fast, hard-boiled patter, makes for a fine contribution to the long tradition of L.A. crime fiction rooted in actual history (think the novels of James Ellroy, and movies such as L.A. Confidential).
Hodiak is right where we left him, with a busted marriage and an enlisted son, Walt, who’s deserted from his Vietnam tour of duty after witnessing U.S. war crimes. Now under arrest in L.A., Walt is being persuaded by Sam that his best chance for freedom is to blow the whistle on what is clearly meant by the producers to be some version of the My Lai massacre. The flaw in Sam’s idea is that he wants to treat the fate of his son the way he treats the rest of his life — as a “move” he can work on his superiors. One of the best aspects of Aquarius is that its protagonist is a good-man-gone-wrong in ways he hasn’t even fully realized: He’s starting to become a lawman for whom breaking the law is standard operating procedure.
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Charles Manson, as played by Game of Thrones’ Gethin Anthony, runs alongside Hodiak’s work in this opening episode (actually the first three episodes of the season, strung together as one “event” for the purposes of NBC’s stunt-launch). Charlie is as weasel-y and wily and whacked-out as always, that combination of screw-up messiah who can fool just enough people to be dangerous.
In a couple of key scenes this night, Manson meets Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, played skillfully by Andy Favreau. In real life, Manson fancied himself a genius songwriter, and saw Wilson as his ticket to stardom. (The Beach Boys ended up recording at least one of Manson’s songs.) Aquarius and show creator McNamara take a daring leap and presume that Manson saw Wilson as a judgmental father-figure, and that that notion complicated their relationship. It’s just one example of the psychologically complex show McNamara continues to build with Aquarius.
Aquarius airs Thursday night at 9 p.m. on NBC.