Is it possible to follow the rules when your greatest impulses want you to break every single one of them? That’s part of the premise behind the new NBC show “Aquarius,” which showcased people struggling with doing the right thing and what they wanted out of life no matter what the consequences were for everyone involved. Sure, the show’s series premiere got off to a somewhat awkward start once it shook off some of the 60s stereotypes, but it has improved as the episodes have progressed.
“Aquarius” followed Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) grew up in a time period when it was okay to be a traditional family man who often did as he was told; even if he wasn’t happy about doing so. He was now forced to contend with the fact that his strict standards were no longer in fashion in 1967 Los Angeles where hippies ruled the streets and race riots were always on the brink of happening. Hodiak’s family life has erupted in a big way with him being separated from his wife and his son Walt being awol from fighting in the Vietnam War. Walt was on the run from everyone and seemed to be poised to doing something dangerous that could get him locked up in prison or worse. While Sam struggled with his family life, he received a call from his former girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus) who was worried about her missing teenage daughter Emma (Emma Dumont) and her latest disappearing act from home. This time was different than the other times she ran away from home, because she was living with Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) and his commune of hippy lovers/devotees as they listened to his rantings like it was the gospel. At this time, Manson’s later 60s crimes were not in the forefront of his mind or the rest of the country. In 1967, he was just another criminal on parole looking to make a name for himself by any means necessary; including blackmailing Emma’s closeted father Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne) into doing his bidding. Manson had a lot of material on both Ken and his law firm partners that could get everyone involved into some very hot water. In an effort to get Manson behind bars and Emma safe, Hodiak recruited a hippy undercover cop named Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) who could fit into Manson’s world, while he often relied on a female police officer named Charmain Tully (Claire Holt) to help her do more than get coffee for everyone. Will Sam be able to save Emma from Manson’s ever growing dangerous plans or will she be able another lost cause?
In terms of questions, the show has asked a fair number, but the bigger one involved whether how true events were going to tie into the partially fictionalized story. Charles Manson’s part in one of the most gruesome crimes in the 1960s showcased how true evil existed without having to wield any weapon to make his grisly point. Anthony’s version of Manson demonstrated that underneath his hippie charm was a psychopath in the making that was eager to come out whenever someone crossed him one too many times. He showcased his portrayal with the ability to be persuasive and charming while getting his female followers into doing some very questionable things to please him. Anthony definitely proved that he was the show’s true villain in a way without making him too much of a familiar television cliche. He proved that his fictionalized version of Manson was one part of relaxed hippy, while the other half was a ruthless criminal looking to cash in wherever he can get the most money and power. One later episode referenced at least one of Manson’s real life followers as she mentioned her true name in passing, which was all the more disturbing given the events that happened a few years after the events of the show took place. Unfortunately, some of the show’s other plots could use a little improvement; such as the ones involving the personal lifes of Shafe and Hodiak. Shafe’s story seemed mainly for show to prove that his character was more evolved than the rest of his male counterparts, but it should be fleshed out to prove that his family life was more than a television prop. One episode proved to show some early potential involving someone harassing his family, but the plot was too brief. Hodiak’s story, on the other hand, proved to have too many complications and entanglements. It also didn’t help that Duchovny seemed to have a more comfortable with Holt’s Charmain instead of McManus’ Grace, which focused on a past that viewers were unfamiliar with. A few flashbacks could help alleviate that, but the fact that McManus’ character appeared to be too young to have a 16 year old daughter made it hard to believe as well.
In terms of breakout performances, Duchovny, Damon, Holt and Dumont led the pack for various reasons. Sure, Duchovny’s sarcastic nature seemed to be misplaced in such a straight laced character as Hodiak, but he seemed to work best when he was allowed to make wisecracks with various characters, especially Damon’s Shafe. Duchovny’s Hodiak and Damon’s Shafe proved to be the ultimate polar opposite partners who managed to work well together, even though they come from two very different worlds. Damon’s Shafe could use a little more character development beyond his undercover work, but that will likely happen as the season progressed as his cases start to impact his home life in different ways. Holt provided some strong material in a role that was rather limited at times, which was fitting for the time period that the show focused on where women didn’t have much of a voice in a male centered career world. Holt’s Charmain wanted to be a respected cop, but she was forced to do every menial task while the other male cops around her sneered at her presence. She had a few opportunities at doing undercover work and a case of her own, but she still didn’t much respect. Holt had a few scenes where Charmain was eager to prove her male colleagues wrong, but there need to be a few more in order satisfy viewers. Dumont, on the other hand, had challenging task of trying to balance innocence and rebellion as she realized the reality of her new world was not all that it was cracked up to be. She gave Emma a hint of innocence as she blindly trusted her new found family and as she realized that there was more to Manson than met the eye. Let’s hope that she realized his true colors before it was too late.
“Aquarius” premiered on May 28th and airs Thursdays at 9:00 PM on NBC. All episodes currently available online or OnDemand.
Verdict: The show’s slowly unfolding bigger case was the main draw as it showcased the evolution of true evil, but it needed to better focus on its more immediate stories to maintain viewers.
TV Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)