One of the trickier aspects of shooting a period drama — especially on television — is including enough authentic markers of the time period to distinguish the setting without going overboard. Too few, and the show feels specious. Too many, and it risks spilling over into parody, not to mention losing what makes it identifiable to modern audiences. “Mad Men” is perhaps the best example of a perfectly captured tone: Matthew Weiner’s recently departed opus incorporated so many retired practices into its story, it made them cool again in the real world. (Who among us doesn’t wish they could knock back a whiskey at the afternoon board meeting?) While “Aquarius” is a far cry from its ’60s-era sister series, John McNamara approaches the love generation with an astute and particular vision that translates to a fascinating, if uneven, new series.
Meet Detective Sam Hodiak. Hodiak, played by the charismatic David Duchovny, is an LAPD officer first, a war veteran second, and a progressive-minded free thinker third. The last of these character traits isn’t immediately addressed, as it initially appears Hodiak is eager to dismiss PR-conscious police practices and the free-love movement altogether — he certainly wouldn’t support the body cameras soon to be attached to all LAPD officers. But Hodiak, unlike other characters, has a little something extra going on under the surface.
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Once you get past the bad boy exterior — via fun, if over-used exemplifiers like hard drinking, shirtless boxing and numerous bedmates — Hodiak proves himself one of the better leading lads on television. A hero trapped in an antihero story, Duchovny plays the character with a carefree conviction now patented by the ex-“X-Files” and “Californication” actor. Hodiak is the first to crack wise, but also the first one in the door, exemplifying a true leader in an age and profession now seen through tarnished glasses. What he’s doing isn’t right — especially near the end of the season — but it’s right for the job as it was worked in the early ’60s.
Wrong but accurate can describe many of the show’s period touches. Broadcast-friendly racial slurs are dropped left and right, and McNamara isn’t afraid to engage with some of the more daunting topics facing police both then and now. Brutality, self-policing and scandal all play into the larger picture painted by “Aquarius,” even if none are tackled head on by a knowing public (because there wasn’t one back then). Minorities speak up from time to time, with Gaius Charles’ (“Friday Night Lights”) Black Panther Party leader Bunchy proving the most entertaining and relevant to the subcultural setting. Things don’t go so well for the Panthers in this show. Then again, they rarely did in real life.
But for every couple of purposefully placed injustices, there’s at least one that’s unintended. Women don’t fare well on “Aquarius,” though that’s not all due to generational accuracy. The two main female characters are Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), a young cop Hodiak takes under his wing, and Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), a young runaway Hodiak is sent to track down. Setting aside their story service to our male hero, the two get very little development and even fewer defining characteristics. Tully’s biggest scene makes her a timid mockery of female police officers, far too weak to ever be effective and in need of an awkward helping hand from a man to keep going. Emma, meanwhile, blankly stares at atrocity after atrocity, seemingly registering the awful nature of her captor’s crimes without ever acting on them.
Emma’s master is none other than Charles Manson, and if you’re wondering, “Hey, isn’t this show about Charles Manson?” my answer is mostly, “No.” Though the iconic killer (mentioned in the final episode of “Mad Men”) takes up about half the screen time of each episode, Manson’s story never comes to life. By the end of Season 1, he’s a supporting player in another character’s twisted addiction and has yet to do anything more disturbing than any delusional hippie too far gone for his own good.
Of course, part of the boredom surrounding Manson’s character falls squarely on the shoulders of Gethin Anthony. He spits the lines and looks the part, but in all his blustery anger the “Game of Thrones” vet can’t make Manson more than a two-sided coin. His charisma is only known because we’re told it’s there and see its effects. His passion is only evident in his uninspired outbursts. We watch the motions without ever seeing his soul, or understanding why so many women fell prey to his charms. (If Duchovny had played Manson, oh boy would we get the appeal.)
Manson’s most intriguing dynamic belongs to another character’s story. Charlie, a bisexual polygamist, is depicted in the historical fiction of “Aquarius” as loving only one person: a man whose identity will be kept secret to preserve spoilers. Yet it’s the man’s story that’s far deeper than Manson’s by season’s end; his troubles are the ones we’re more interested in tracking, especially because of how homosexuality is addressed on the show. Framed accurately for the time period, “Aquarius” features at least one of our heroes deploring the “sickness” of homosexuality while investigating a murder motivated by a similar hatred. Hodiak is given a more liberal spin to preserve his acceptance by viewers, but everyone around him is battling against the “deviant” behavior.
Yet the truly daring decision is how McNamara’s vision ties America’s cultural rejection of gay men to Manson and his followers’ ritualistic abuse of women. It’s not an explicit connection, but a sturdily-constructed and necessary impetus considering how long the writers have delayed the infamous Manson murders. With the knowledge of what Manson will do (presumably, in future episodes), it heightens our interest in him — even if it’s the active abuser who’s more gripping this season.
This touchy subject included, not all the ideas in “Aquarius” are presented in an easily digestible manner. Some of the language and structuring is too labored, but the unique blend of serialized and procedural writing makes the cop drama feel fresh. Elements an experienced “Law & Order” or “CSI” viewer may be trained to dismiss after one episode prove pertinent down the line. It’s a good thing NBC made the entire series not only available for critics to binge-watch in advance, but available to audiences immediately after its broadcast premiere, a groundbreaking decision for a show that needs it. A few episodes may not be enough for viewers to buy into the distinct world created in “Aquarius.” But nothing is as expendable as it seems, and — even though that means some aspects are forgettable — that alone makes us want to watch more, however NBC is ready to give it to us.
Watch the premiere episode above and all episodes of “Aquarius” right now at NBC.com.