TV Review: Aquarius - "Everybody's Been Burned"/"The Hunter Gets Captured"
Plot: In 1967, Los Angeles police sergeant Sam Hodiak (Duchovny) is helped in a missing persons case by undercover officer Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), who behaves like a hippie and fits in with the people being questioned. Unknown to them, their investigation will lead them to Charles Manson.
Episode: "Everybody's Been Burned"/"The Hunter Gets Captured"
Review: The story of Charles Manson has been told numerous times on the big screen and small, each focusing on the notorious killer's charismatic personality and his heinous crimes. Aquarius shifts that focus off of Manson himself and instead builds a fictional roster of characters led by David Duchovny as the grizzled cop Sam Hodiak. NBC is billing Aquarius as Duchovny's return to network television after his run on Showtime's Californication, but Hodiak is not much different than Hank Moody or his iconic role as Fox Mulder.
In fact, through these first two episodes, Aquarius is clearly a showcase for Duchovny. The showrunners seem tempted to make Duchovny's Hodiak a variation of Russell Crowe's Bud White from L.A. CONFIDENTIAL: a cop willing to bust some heads to do the right thing. Instead, Hodiak is a mix of Hank Moody's emotional volatility and Mulder's investigative creativity. Duchovny gets to crack skulls and build his team of investigators including undercover hippie cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) and officer Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), both of whom have stereotypical 1960s problems: he is torn between hippies and his duty as a cop, she wants to be more than a clerk and get in on the action despite being a woman.
But, therein lies the problem with Aquarius. Unlike Mad Men, Aquarius doesn't explore the era it takes place in but rather references it only when it has to. The investigation Hodiak and Shafe undertake is billed as being integral to finding Charles Manson, but Manson is the least interesting aspect of the show. Game of Thrones' former Renly Baratheon, Gethin Anthony, plays Manson as a charismatic man gathering women but has yet to turn him into the madman he eventually becomes. With Aquarius tied to the Manson element of the story, it seeems to hold it back from being just a really good cop show.
Aquarius has a gritty story bubbling under the surface and yet suffers from being too clean. Some network series like NBC's Hannibal are able to achieve a unique visual style that sets them apart from everything else on television, but Aquarius feels very by the numbers. The first two episodes, directed by veteran TV filmmaker Jonas Pate, look like any other show on TV. In fact, the only way you really know the show is set in 1967 is the stellar soundtrack of classic rock tunes. The costume and set design are spot on, but the rest of the picture is just too clean to be convincing as a historically set drama.
Things definitely get dark over the first two hours with an attempted rape scene and lots of innuendo about a relationship between Manson and the stepfather of his recent addition to his family, Emma Karn. There are some violent scenes that definitely show Manson is more than meets the eye, but it still doesn't feel like enough to elevate the series. The subplot in the second episode featuring Friday Night Lights' Gaius Charles as Bunchy Carter is instantly more interesting than the series' overall story and that could be the biggest problem with where creator John McNamara aimed his show.
Aquarius is billed as an event series which may bode well for it in the long run. The first episode does it's job in setting up characters on both sides of the law but the second hour is even better as we meet Hodiak's son abd explore more characters outside of the Manson story arc. There is a rich range of stories Aquarius could be telling that would make it a much more intriguing series, but as it stands it is just an okay summer diversion. If anything, this show is worth watching to see David Duchovny chew the scenery until the return of The X-Files next year.