Unspeakable spread: A roundup of Lovecraft themed virtual card games

Even as we digitize, there has been a boom in card and board games. Perhaps as things become more virtual, we are desperate to grasp something tangible–I have suggested this explains the pocket popularity of steampunk. Regardless, one cannot stop the digital onslaught, so in a twisted turnabout-is-fair-game sort of move, it is possible to find various card games in a virtual form. Which is fine by me, in a way. Look, I’m all about the tangibles sometimes, but my least favorite part of card games is other people. Electronic card games remove that nasty component, with other players faceless and miles away. And it doesn’t hurt that there are a few that are sort of free. Given my interests, it was only a matter of time before I found a couple that utilized the Cthulhu mythos. As it turns out, there are enough to justify a review.

The only completely free game on this list is “Necronomicon,” a browser-based game. Coupled with its lack of price, the game is quick enough to figure out, and it doesn’t get anywhere near tricky until the very end, so this is probably the place for people more interested in mythos than cards to dive in. Which isn’t to say that it’s the best; game-wise, “quick to figure out” translates to “lack of depth,” and the artwork ranges from kind of interesting to kind of silly. Curiously enough, there was once an earlier version of the game that had more serious looking artwork, but it’s largely disappeared from the Internet due to some copyright issue. Weird.

The game draws upon a pretty subtle selection of Mythos works for its cards, and there is a strong 1920s gangster thing going, so you’ll see plenty of Tommy guns and the like. More cards are added in the quasi-sequel, “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names.” In the game’s first form, cards were either single-use events or creatures; here, items, characters and locations have been added. Which does give the game legs while keeping it fairly simple. This is the kind of thing you can have on in the background at work.

If you’re after something a little more booster pack flavored, try Wizards of the Coast alum Darwin Kastle’s “Cthulhu Realms,” which is apparently a digital version of a physical card game…unless it’s a digital card game with a physical spin off. This kind of thing gets pretty swampy these days. The game’s main strength is its sense of humor. Mythos fans who can take a joke will be instantly entertained by the creepy-yet-cartoony artwork, which leans on an interesting buffet of Mythos tales. Readers will also recognize obscurer references to stories like “The House in the High Mist” and characters like Keziah Mason.

I downloaded a free version of the game on a tablet, which included the first half of the easy difficulty of campaign mode, as well as a tutorial and card gallery. Again, humor is the strongest thing here: The campaign’s story follows an IRS officer (and, yes, the IRS was newly minted in the 1920s, so points for historical accuracy) who becomes entangled in a war between Deep Ones and inmates at Arkham Asylum–his own sanity being guarded because his brain was trained to manage the maddening tax codes of the United States government.

I shelled out five bucks for the complete version of the game and was soon disappointed. The second half of the campaign was nowhere near as funny, and, for my fingers at least, the learning curve of the unlocked hard difficulty far too steep; I couldn’t tell if I was winning from skill or blind luck (hopefully both, but probably the latter). If you’re into stats, stats and more stats, maybe you’ll appreciate the brutal pace; for the more casual, comical or Cthulhu-esque card player, you’ll probably be fine with the free version.

Possibly the deepest of the bunch is French developer and digital big-man-on-campus Byook’s “The Moaning Words.” Sure, the name is terrible, but they’re French. You try creating a horror game in a foreign tongue and see how far you get. The gameplay itself is simple, a bit like tic-tac-toe with shoggoths, but this is the only game I’m reviewing here that lets you build your own deck, so there is a soft strategy to it.

Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, “Words” has a secret weapon: Alan Dean Foster. Foster is the king of movie novelizations, the most literate pulp writer since Richard Matheson. If you don’t believe me, go read his adaptations of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” And his adaptations of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies? Well…we all make bad choices from time to time.

Anyway, sticking Foster on the script not only gives this game serious cosmic horror cred, it means that the campaign mode is pretty well done. Which is great for someone like me who plays games for a well crafted story. I don’t know if Foster also wrote the biographies of the cards in the card gallery, whoever did deserves some praise as well. Some cards are given a special section of background notes, which always features a quote by a relevant author (obviously, it’s usually Lovecraft), which adds to the depth. And it also doesn’t hurt that the art on the cards is pretty nicely done (I also played this game on a tablet).

This game is freemium: You can advance basically for free by waiting around for various features, like chapters in the campaign, items in the store and different modes of play, to be unlocked by time or chance, or you can make in app purchases. Your call, but remember–the gameplay isn’t deep, so you will probably want those features unlocked sooner or later to keep things interesting.

Interestingly enough, Cthulhu is far less present than you would think in these games. Only “Words” has a playable Cthulhu card; “Cthlhu Realms” just showcases his shadow, and “Necronomicon: Book of Dead Names” relegates him to an environmental element. He’s not even in the first “Necronomicon.” Seems like this Great Old One needs a better agent.

An alien sense of isolation: A critical analysis of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982)

It’s Independence Day weekend, and while one alien invasion flick crash lands at the box office, I find myself turning to something a little more classic (and a little more horror) as far as the sub-genre goes. I recently re-viewed director John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which is, in my opinion, among the finest horror or science fiction films ever crafted, in part because it takes the best elements of both and utilizes them for scares. One of the themes from horror that the movie uses is the theme of isolation, here married to the concept of an alien threat.

There are multiple ways that the characters at Outpost 31 are isolated. They are, most obviously, physically isolated from the rest of humanity by the Antarctic landscape, and they are infamously isolated from each other even before the arrival of the alien. In the establishing shots of the base, people are mostly engaged in solitary activities: reading magazines, lost in headphones–even our hero, Macready (Kurt Russell), plays computer chess far from the other men. The closest we have to human interaction is two scientists who play a curiously silent game of ping pong.

Further, the men are also isolated in their own humanity by the alien presence in their midst, which is both unknown, being an extraterrestrial life-form (“It’s not cellular structure as we know it,” Blair (Wilford Brimley) notes during the autopsy) and one that robs human identity of its knowable nature. The scientists and staff at the outpost cannot trust the people around them to still be people (“Trust is a hard thing to come by these days,” Macready quips in one of the film’s more familiar lines), making each man a paranoid island unto himself. The men are also isolated from their more knowledgeable comrades, the Norwegian scientists, by language. The alien itself is alone–far removed from its planet and its fellow life-forms. But it’s not only the characters and creatures that are isolating factors.

In many works of literature and cinema, architecture represents the characters within (haunted Bly in “The Turn of the Screw” or decadent Xanadu in “Citizen Kane”). “The Thing” is no exception. Carpenter uses the camera to frame Outpost 31 as a facility that is far from populated. Repeatedly, slow tracking shots showcase the long, lonely hallways and empty rooms of the buildings. This visual motif replays throughout the film until is comes to represent the men within: Outpost 31 is just as empty and lonely as the human beings that inhabit it.

As the images isolate, the sounds on screen alienate. Ennio Morricone’s masterful score is as alien as the threat; the use of Bartok-esque strings and inhuman sounding synthesizers is slow, atmospheric, and utterly robs the audience of some of the louder tropes of horror film scores (it is certainly a far cry from Carpenter’s other films, which often feature a hard rock soundtrack from the director himself). Even during the explosive climax, where one would expect the soundtrack to ramp up and draw the audience into the action, is uncomfortably quiet and distant. But it’s what happens after the climax that might be the most isolating of all.

In most horror films, the appearance of another human being would signal a positive shift, but in “The Thing,” it’s far from comforting. When Childs (Keith David) appears from out of the night at the film’s conclusion, he does not represent a reunion with humanity for Macready; instead, he doubles up the isolation. While before Macready had been alone on the remains of the burning base, now he has to contend with a possibly inhuman foe. Too exhausted to react, Macready settles into himself, utterly isolated from a humanity that is 1,000 miles away and from the one man who is six feet in front of him.

That was fast: A critical review of “Penny Dreadful’s” series finale

While “Penny Dreadful” was not my favorite show, it was certainly something that I always enjoyed watching if only to see what writer-creator John Logan would do next. Somewhere between the talking Satan dolls and the characters being randomly reanimated or turned into werewolves, “Dreadful” was delightfully un-subtle. Normally this would have bothered me, but the show’s triumph was in atmosphere and theatrics, not in reality. In fact, given how much some shows struggle for (and fail to reach) a semblance of reality, it was kind of refreshing to watch something that was only interested in style.

And then it just kinda ended.

Like most fans of the series, I was a bit blindsided by the fact that this season would be the last. Even when one of the main characters died, there was still hope; it was not until the words “the end,” which had never graced an episode before, appeared on screen that we knew. Fan response to the realization has been mixed, from assertions of the move’s poetic brilliance to sentiments of outright betrayal on the part of the show’s creators and Showtime. Admittedly, Logan had taken a “scorched earth” tactic to writing in the season two finale, but this time around said tactic has been paired with enough loose ends and rushed writing to suggest a conspiracy on someone’s part.

Characters who were introduced in this season (Perdita Weeks’s Catriona Hartdegan, a kind of Hugh-Jackman-as-Van-Helsing leather-clad vampire huntress; Shazad Latif’s intriguingly hot ‘n’ cold Dr. Jekyll, who gets about six minutes of screen time) were given no development or backstory. It’s a trick the show has used before (remember Helen McCrory’s presence in season one compared to season two?), but with no fourth season in sight, the trick feels less like a trick and more like sloppy storytelling.

Given that “Dreadful” normally does things big, it was a bit strange when the end of the world, which the end of the season promised, seemed a bit more whimper than bang (I don’t blame director Paco Cabezas, who handled a few of the episodes of the third season and gives them all a suitably Gothic air). This end of the world all happens overnight, and yet the populace of London seems rather indifferent about it. On the one hand, dockworkers no longer show up because of the fog and plague and vampire infestation; on the other hand, doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein (the always affable Harry Treadaway) continue to work as if nothing is wrong. Until Ethan Chandler/Talbot (the eternally brooding Josh Hartnett) goes looking for Frankenstein, so the doctor appears ready for end of the world action, despite wolf boy never actually having talked to him.

And then the whole thing is resolved in a gun battle where the vampires, which had previously been vicious killing machines, transform into very effective bullet sponges, soaking up the collective violence of an assault team whose members include a middle-aged alienist (Patti LuPone) and a clumsy man child (that’d be Frankenstein), neither of whom dies in the ensuing slaughter (in fact, none of the main characters die…except for the one). I suppose said alienist is so effective at killing vampires because she murdered her husband when she was 20 years younger. That explains that.

Likewise, Dracula (an increasingly disappointing–or disappointingly used–Christian Camargo), who we spent three seasons building up as the worst thing on the material plane, slinks out of the finale without pausing to gloat at his escape. He’s just gone, as if he suddenly remembered he’d left some blood on the kitchen counter and needs to stash it back in the fridge before it goes bad.

To clarify, I didn’t mind the single aforementioned death; what I mind is the loose ends. In fact, the only ending that I found satisfying was the one for Dorian Gray (played pretty-yet-weary by Reeve Carney) and erstwhile bride of Frankenstein Lily (the fantastic Billie Piper–is her character’s name a “Munsters” reference? Did I just get that?); she just sort of wanders off and remains, framed like a painting, in his chilly mansion. For a show that was about the acceptance of death, it seems fitting that the characters that cannot die got the bleakest of endings.

Logan has defended his decision to end the show so suddenly, stating that he’s always planned the adventures of Vanessa Ives and her ragtag crew to be a three-season play. In short, he’s remaining true to his vision. That’s fine, but we must remain lucid. It is one thing to admire a writer for telling the story he chose to tell in the time he needs to tell it, especially in an age when there often is no act three, but rather a long, protracted act two that lasts for seasons on end; it is altogether another thing to admire a writer for telling a story well, something that Logan seems to have forgotten in his rush to finish up things when he wanted to finish them.

Is there artistry in grade-Z horror?: A critical review of “Cellar Dweller” (1988)

Why do people keep giving Jeffrey Combs copies of the “Necronomicon”? I know better. You know better. But some people just can’t figure this out. At least, this appears to be the dilemma at the start of “Cellar Dweller,” a late 80s, direct-to-video horror schlocker I found myself watching the other day on Comet TV (arguably my new favorite channel–it’s your one-stop-shop for cheesy horror). Before we’re through, the film will (inadvertently?) make some statements about art–and tally a body count.

Despite his high listing in the cast list, Jeffrey Combs is on screen for about six minutes, playing (the delightfully named) Colin Childress, a comic book artist who summons a monstrous creature–presumably the titular Cellar Dweller–with his sketches. Despite banishing the beast, Childress ends up killing someone and burning the basement down. Fast forward 30 years, and the house where Childress summoned the monster has become an artist retreat. Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino, “Storm of the Century”) heads to the retreat, which hosts a quirky cast of characters including Miranda Wilson as a nutty performance artist (I knew girls like that in college); Vince Edwards as a retired private detective who channels his experiences into detective fiction; Brian Robbins as a prerequisite 80s boytoy; and, most significantly, Pamela Bellwood as an old artistic rival and Yvone De Carlo (TV’s Lily Munster) as the no-nonsense head of the retreat. Taylor starts following in Childress’s footsteps and her drawings turn dangerous–when she draws people being gruesomely killed by the Cellar Dweller, those people end up being gruesomely killed by…well, you get it.

“Cellar Dweller” is no great shake. The transformations (there are a couple) are not good and the ending falls a little flat. However, the monster suit, while largely stationary, is good, the acting is decent and the script is not bad. It was written by Don Mancini (scripter of “Troll,” creator of the Chucky franchise and, most deliciously, writer of a few episodes of “Hannibal”), and the film feels a bit like an overlong episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” both in terms of scope and morality (Mancini would go on to pen at least one episode of the series). But the narrative is not the only thing that’s contained in the film.

It might be the fact that it was released direct-to-video, but “Cellar Dweller” has a claustrophobic element that works in its favor. Shots are not merely confined; they are curiously squared, as if director John Carl Buechler (“Troll” again and, later, a Friday the 13th franchise alum) tried to place the frames of the film in comic book panels. Even long shots are confined to squares. Look again at the shot of Taylor entering the artist’s colony–the straight lines of the trees make a stern border for the action. This comic book framing is important not just because of our protagonist’s profession, but also for the sake of the film’s definition of art.

The definition of art (one of my favorite philosophical subjects) is quite broad and inviting in “Cellar Dweller.” In the film, art can be painting, illustration, writing, performance and film. Mediums are also inclusive; at the retreat, artists work with canvas, comic books and cameras. What is art? “Cellar Dweller” takes a post-modern approach, suggesting that anything can be art given the way you do it (does that include “Cellar Dweller” itself?). But there is a trace of traditionalism. Over the course of the film, art appears to be what you feel and express–Taylor repeatedly talks about her desires spilling onto the page (and ending in the deaths of the a couple of her fellow artists). But Taylor is also in touch with some more primal force–the “imagination,” the Cellar Dweller itself proclaims. Far be it from me to apply Platonic theories of reality to “Cellar Dweller,” but it appears as though the film suggests that, to a certain degree, art comes from the inspiration given by a supernatural entity–what the ancients called genius.

All that said, is “Cellar Dweller” a good movie? No. But I think I’m something of a connoisseur of cheesy B-cinema. Some of it’s bad. Some of it’s so bad it’s good. And some of it approaches good. “Cellar Dweller” might just fall in to the latter category.

On showing and telling: A critical review of “It Follows” (2015)

It seems like every couple of years there’s some new movie that’s touted as the one that’s completely changed the rules of horror. In 2012, it was “Cabin in the Woods”; last year it was “It Follows,” which I caught on Showtime the other day.

I dislike that kind of thinking. It seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with horror as it is–that it needs saving. I think it’s telling that whenever there’s a film that’s given the distinction of “savior of horror,” it’s something that attempts intelligence or artistry. This is more than misguided; it’s demeaning. It leads back to the old notion of the mystery science ghetto–any horror film that attempts intelligence or artistry must be the one that’s going to save the genre because the genre is naturally stupid and artless. That’s nonsense; horror has as much potential for intelligence and artistry as any other genre.

“It Follows” is unquestionably an artsy movie. The film follows Jay (newly minted scream queeen Maika Monroe), a sexy teen who thinks she’s going to have sexy sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary, looking like the world’s oldest high schooler); instead, he knocks her out, ties her to a chair and infects her with “it.” Basically, the titular “it” is a ghostly shape shifting entity that follows Jay around–always silent, slow moving and wearing white–that will kill her if it gets too close. Jay’s friends–including a standard dork with a crush (Keir Gilchrist)–go from doubting her sanity to increasingly desperate attempts to protect her from the invincible entity.

The film is certainly visually rewarding. The cinematography is pleasant and clean–and I mean that. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis have a penchant for setting up and focusing on interesting shots (the opening scene is essentially one shot and largely silent). The film also knows how to display color. While many indie horror films opt for a monochrome or limited palate, “It Follows” is refreshingly vibrant. So the film looks good. But is it smart? Well…

The atmosphere is the film’s strongest element. The environment is dream-like. No parents trouble the teens, and the architecture of the town rolls on like an eternal suburbia, bordered by a local beach and a village green. Bodies of water–a pool, a lake, another pool–act as grounding elements rather than street signs. There is also an untimely, decidedly retro feel to the film, from the props to the shots (and the score sounds like outtakes from 1979’s “Phantasm”). The entity is the most dream-like part of the film. It lopes in the distance, looking like someone different every time it turns a corner or disappears behind a door, or it simply stands and stares almost out of sight. The fact that other people can’t see it only adds to its dream-like mystique.

The subtext is quite well handled. Although the most common interpretation of the film is that the entity represents sexually transmitted diseases, it’s sexually suggestive in more than one way. The fear of intimacy, the cheapening of sex in modern society and even the inevitability of death are all wrapped inside the film’s symbolism. It works, for the most part, but there are flubs. For example, one wonders what’s up with the bottles of pills in the boyfriend’s hideout–if they’re meds, the film might be suggesting a psychological, rather than supernatural, explanation for its events, but this idea is never developed. Perhaps it is all simply about venereal disease, and the pills are a shot at the mercury cure?

Part of the problem is that the film is much more concerned with atmosphere than narrative. While I myself am more impressed by atmosphere than narrative, “It Follows” loses its way more than once, particularly with the monstrous entity that lurks at the periphery of the film.

“It Follows'” climactic pool scene might be a nod to the climax of the excellent “Let the Right One In,” but I prefer to think it’s a nod to Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s excellent “Cat People.” Despite working for RKO, Lewton behaved like an independent producer, so he’s an ideal idol for indie horror filmmakers everywhere–his tricks were designed to maximize psychological impact while minimizing budget. Much like “Cat People,” “It Follows” wants to hide its monster in the shadows. But while the poolside scene in “Cat People” kept the monster just out of shot and out of sight, in “It Follows,” as soon as we’re in the pool, the film starts showcasing its lack of visible monster is a very different way. Where before the monster was glimpses of out of place people, now we have teenagers shouting at what appears to be nothing…nothing that is throwing toasters.

A film has to be fairly comfortable with its monster to show it; it must be very comfortable not to show it. “It Follows” wants to have the best of both worlds. It can’t. I’m sorry if I’m nitpicking, but “It Follows” is such an earnest and well conceived attempt that it feels like it can handle some nitpicking. “It Follows” is a good looking and atmospheric and–dare I say it–a  fresh take on an old story. But its unsteady plot collapses in its final third. Two impressive thirds of a film do not a great film make, but those two thirds are impressive enough to demand attention.

Strange family: A critical review of HBO’s “True Detective” season two (2015)

It is no secret that this blog likes “True Detective.” The first season still stands, in my opinion, as one of the finest uses of the medium of television. Despite the fact that I no longer subscribed to HBO, I was looking forward with great expectations for the second season in a way that I hadn’t been looking forward to television other than (the recently departed) “Hannibal.” So when the reports started coming in that the show was lackluster, and that behind the scene showrunner Nick Pizzolatto was kind of an ass, I was disappointed, but still looking forward to judging for myself. With expectations adjusted, I got around to watching the show and was pleasantly surprised. It still ranks as one of the best products of 2015–certainly the best of the recent spate of LA TV thrillers. Was the second season as good as the first? No. Was it bad? Far from it. The first season was pure gold; the second was merely mirror-polished silver.

I understand some of the criticism. The second season suffers in part because it lacks the unifying hand of a single director (remember, all the episodes of seasons one were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga). Regardless, we get some fascinating sequences, like the Lynchian opening to episode three, “Maybe Tomorrow”–photographed in dream-like parallels and sporting perfect music selection by T Bone Burnett. Episode four, “Down Will Come,” contains a tense, sprawling shootout with standard action cinematography that is quite different–but still effective–from season one’s infamous single camera shot in episode four.

Much was also made of the cast, and much of it was mixed. Bigger and more diverse–three angry white men, and one angry white woman, instead of the previous two; one closeted gay instead of the previous zero–to grapple with Pizzolatto’s more labyrinthine story (Pizzolatto occasionally shares writing credit with Scott Lasser and script coordinator Amanda Overton) of grotesque murders and local corruption. Everybody picked a favorite. Mine was Farrell, as corrupt cop Ray Velcoro, whose grotesque facial hair, preference for bolo ties and quips straight out of classic detective television (“I ain’t exactly Columbo”) may make him seem like a bit of an anachronism, a scenery sweating slice of the 1970s. But Ferrell plays him with such a world weariness–the man looks physically exhausted, genuinely weighed down from a lifetime of conspiracy–that he transcends believability to become something more. There are shades of the out-of-place, unstuck-in-time Bates family in “Bates Motel” about him, which adds to the mystique of both the character and the show.

Vince Vaughn is, well, Vince Vaughn. As mobster-about-town Frank Semyon he handles the physical stuff pretty well, actually, perhaps given his years in broad comedy. But when it comes to the character’s frequent monologues, Vaughn resorts to a kind of “serious actor voice,” which ranges from suitable to silly depending on the length and content of the speech (it should go without saying that the shorter the better; Vaughn delivers grim one-liners with deadpan ease, but longer meditations on rats and water stains fall flat). The majority of the sympathy for his character is actually drawn from Kelly Reilly, as his long-suffering wife, who beautifully rounds out what could have been a minor part in the hands of a lesser actress. Reilly treats her like a human being, and we have no choice but to treat her likewise.

A special note must also be made of the supporting cast, particularly of the corrupt members of the city of Vinci’s government. Ritchie Coster is delightful as a thoroughly sleazy mayor, Afemo Milami an excellent foil as a surprisingly stony police chief, and James Frain as a police bureaucrat whose allegiances are constantly shifting is…well, he’s James Frain, isn’t he? The man excels as pretty much any villain he plays.

“Detective’s” second season is at its core about families. Velcoro wants to reconnect with his (supposed) son; the Semyons want a child; highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is having a child, whether he wants one or not, and struggles to connect with his girlfriend and mother; and (the delightfully named) county sheriff Antigone Bezzeerides (Rachel McAdams) butchers her way through a relationship with her father and sister. Even the cryptic solution to the mystery is a family affair. Combined with the unquestionable sense of fatalism (“We get the world that we deserve”), the show seems to run opposite the popular modern doctrine that we create the family we end up with. Not so fast, “Detective” says. Family is not who you decide to put up with; it’s who you have to put up with. The city of Vinci itself seems like the unwanted child of both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and, like a bad seed, it’s picked up the worst traits of both: remote and industrial, shadowy and corrupt. But Vinci’s parents cannot abandon it any more than the ocean can abandon the tide, and law enforcement from Los Angeles county and the state of California struggle to help their spawn. Does it work? Well, the southland has always been noir country. I’ll let you figure it out.

“True Detective’s” statement on familial fatalism is certainly something to chew on. But in a modern world, where freedom of choice is the topic of choice, the show’s downbeat message seems to have failed to captivate viewers. But that’s the way it goes, I guess. In the end, we get the television that we deserve.

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.