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Review: The ‘Aquarius’ Two-Hour, Commercial-Free Season 2 Premiere Blends the Best of Summer Movies & TV

"Aquarius" takes full advantage of its cinematic presentation in a tense, entertaining and commercial-free two-hour premiere tonight.

AQUARIUS -- "Why Don't We Do It in The Road?" Episode 203 -- Pictured: David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak -- (Photo by: Vivian Zink/NBC)

Vivian Zink/NBC

Late in the movie-esque premiere of “Aquarius,” David Duchovny’s rambunctious detective Sam Hodiak scolds a fellow cop in a delightfully specific manner. You see, the young buck contaminated a piece of evidence by not using gloves, infuriating his commanding officer who’d been receiving pictures of kidnapped women in the mail for a few days already. He wants to get this guy, and his own team is letting him down! But Hodiak’s condescension isn’t fierce or ugly; instead, it’s marked with an infectious wink and smile — even though we know better.

And you do. The content itself is somewhat familiar, as is the dynamic of a superior officer chastising a rookie boy in blue, but the striking aspect of the exchange — beyond Duchovny’s addictive charm — is that while they bicker back and forth, we know the clue in question is opposite in nature of their superfluous exchange. And when Hodiak pulls open the envelope and sees what’s inside, the mood darkens and the laughs disappear.

This much might feel familiar and with good reason. “Aquarius” is largely the same show it was in Season 1 — which is fine. Big issues (like race) remain relevant, but tertiary; Charles Manson is a plot driver, but can’t stack up against Hodiak as a character; there’s fun to be had (nothing beats when Hodiak gives zero fucks), but business to take care of (broadcast cop cliches cannot be avoided). Yet beside the special presentation of the premiere episode — which really does add a grandiose atmosphere to the proceedings — there is one significant change: Women fare better in Season 2 than they did in Season 1.

Aquarius - Season 2 Michaela McManus & David Duchovny

Within these opening hours, two of last season’s most notable ladies get more definition than they did in 13 a year ago. Charmain (Claire Holt), a young cop looking to break into undercover work despite a gender bias in the LAPD, was on the right path by the end of Season 1, and she delves into an aptly risky storyline that will have to be handled with care. She’s become an extremely compelling character; one that threatens to rival Grey Damon’s Shafe as our second favorite of the show (behind Hodiak, of course). In addition, Hodiak’s new boo, Grace (Michaela McManus) takes a stand that defines her far better — and in a more complicated way — than any of her prior choices.

More named-but-disposable female characters are still the damsels in distress waiting for Sir Sam to save them, but opening with layered character analysis of the two most prominent women reassures us of the series’ feminist mentality. And this is key for “Aquarius” not only in the public eye, but in succeeding overall. John McNamara’s dark period piece has a knack for injecting infectious humor into every other scene, but tonally that demands the drama earn its levity — and it does. It was easy to fall for the series’ charms in Season 1, but “Aquarius” only now justifies them.

That being said, Season 2 sees a slight shift toward more serious content in its first two hours, and NBC’s uninterrupted presentation perfectly establishes the new year. The two-hour cut is actually three episodes worth of content diced together to become something filmic, if not fully cinematic. There’s a well-utilized time jumping element that will last throughout the season. Known historic events take precedence for the first time, building to a crescendo you may only fully appreciate if you’re steeped in Manson lore. And the performances overall improve, namely Gethin Anthony’s challenging portrayal of a future mass murderer. Titled “Helter Skelter,” Season 2’s introduction can’t quite stand on its own as a movie, but you wouldn’t want that. “Aquarius” is a TV show for a reason, and one that you want to spend time with — even when things turn grisly.

Thankfully, McNamara & Co. still find ways to allow Duchovny to be Duchovny — the delightful, uncensored quipster who takes nothing seriously until, you know, it matters. There’s something both admirable and frustrating in the series’ refusal to dive head first into its stars most watchable attributes — which, I imagine, is both what NBC wants and knows better than to ask for; “Aquarius” isn’t your typical cop show. It strives for more, and it merits that ambition in Season 2.

Grade: B+

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