Not quite the dawning of the age: A critical review of NBC’s “Aquarius” (2015)

Take one classic Los Angeles crime, throw in a bunch of multi-layered stories with flawed characters, add a touch of indictment of the era, and voila, you have James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia.” You also have NBC’s “Aquarius,” a show that attempts to follow in maestro Ellroy’s gritty footsteps. “Aquarius” attracted some attention last year in part because, along with airing regularly on television, the program was made entirely available for streaming through reputable NBC sources, a kind of network experiment in binge watching. Luckily, there was more to the show than that, although it took a while to find it. “Aquarius” is one of those shows that seems to get better the longer it goes on (although not as “better” as Amazon’s Phillip K. Dick adaptation of “Man in the High Castle” got).

“Aquarius” follows old fashioned LAPD Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, who you might have heard of) as he tracks down the soon-to-be-infamous murderer and quasi-cult leader Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) in the radically changing social landscape of the late 1960s. There are actually about 20 different plots going on: Hodiak is not tracking down Manson so much as he’s trying to find the daughter of an old flame who’s gone missing on Manson’s ranch; his partner, undercover cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), is trying to infiltrate a local drug gang; Manson himself is trying to infiltrate the music industry, all while working out his own, numerous, personal demons. Historical spoiler alert: he doesn’t work them out well.

There’s a lot to “meh” about with “Aquarius.” The writing is ambitious, but it’s not great; the photography is fine, but it’s not imaginative (although I rather liked the POV shots in an episode where Hodiak is unknowingly given LSD). Casting is a bit of an issue because three of the main characters look almost the same. The casting director must have really had a thing for skinny brunette white guys with close cropped beards, as Damon (who plays a main character), Jason Ralph (who plays newly recruited stool pigeon Mike Vickery) and Anthony (whose Manson is kind of the villain of the piece) all look somewhat similar. Look, if you’re going to set something in 1969, all the guys can’t beard around like it’s 2009. No one had fair and even Millenial stubble in the 60s.

It raises the question: Why set a modern show in an earlier era to begin with? Presumably it’s to find a somewhat universal theme, something that applies to both the previous and contemporary era and can be used to shed light on current and future affairs. For “Aquarius,” the 1960s are seen as a safe space to examine civil rights issues–race and gender and the like. This examining is fairly light, which says less about the issues and more about the characters, who are simply not that engaging. Anthony tries to chew the scenery as Manson, but he’s got an underbite; Damon tries to look moody and thoughtful as undercover officer Shafe, but he just reminds me of Max Thieriot in “Bates Motel”–what is supposed to be introspective and serious and whatnot just looks uncomfortable.

Hodiak is the most interesting character–a hard drinking, slightly corrupt, bullying yet well meaning bully cop who feels the old world slipping out of his grasp. It’s clichéd perhaps, but clichés exist because, on some level, they work. Hodiak navigates the brave new waters of the 1960s with dogged unease, meeting with other strangers in this strange land as if they were equals: the head of the local chapter of the Black Panthers (Gaius Charles, who is quite fun to watch), his son, a dyed in the wool anarchist to Hodiak’s war vet, and, in one particular episode, a detective who’s passing as Irish but about to be outted as Hispanic. Hodiak certainly feels more authentic than Shafe, whose marriage to an African-American feels oddly apologist. (A quick check on IMDb indicates that Milauna Jackson, as Kristin Shafe, appears in more episodes than her undercover husband. You could have fooled me).

Basically, if you like the era and you like Duchovny, feel free to give “Aquarius” a spin. You might have to give it some time as well, which is not something that last year’s audience felt compelled to do. “Aquairus” at least has a better understanding of its era than some other recent LA period cop shows; it just needed a more compelling entry point. Luckily, it seems to have found one in Hodiak’s character. Whether or not it can hold onto that entry point only time, and the summer 2016 lineup, will tell.

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