Welcome to the ‘60s, man! Back when teens were trying to be all long-haired and rebellious, when music was important, Miranda rights were just being established, and casual, open racism was more widely accepted! Also, Charles Manson was there.
NBC’s new period drama Aquarius is set in 1967, though the show doesn’t actually feel like it’s set then: The period feels like a costume the show is awkwardly trying on, stepping out of the dressing room and looking in the mirror while it fidgets around. What’s a good era for a cop show? it asks. Is this good? Can I tell a bunch of cop stories here? Does this time period mostly obscure the fact that at heart, I’m yet another show about a slightly mopey cop who Does Things His Way? Sure, Aquarius.
David Duchovny stars as Sam Hodiak, a homicide detective. He’s not a complete square — ahem, he has a guitar — but he’s not at all down for hippie bullshit. And yet he encounters it so often! Grr. His ex-girlfriend from back in the day calls him because her teenage daughter Emma (Bunheads’s Emma Dumont) has run away again, and she’s worried. Rightly so, since Emma has actually fallen in with the early incarnations of the Manson Family, back when “Charlie” (Gethin Anthony, Game of Thrones) was just a creepy wannabe musician. Hodiak is gonna have to talk to so many youths, so he reluctantly teams up with a young undercover cop from the vice squad (Grey Damon). Sure, they butt heads about what people’s rights are and how okay it is to be racist (very okay versus not okay at all?), but at the end of the day they have their cop brotherhood.
The show tries to noodle out of any need for veracity in the Charles Manson plotline by noting that it’s merely “inspired” by true events. But it takes strange liberties with what’s a well-known and horrific story. Aquarius is set two years before the infamous Helter Skelter murders, and its Manson is more grody cult leader with weird crappy poetry than “yeah, that’s that terrifying guy with the swastika tattoo on his face.” Being in a grimy cult and having group sex with its charismatic leader is not actually illegal, just very unsavory, so the series invents a not-credible subplot in which Manson has dirt on fancy businesspeople and local politicians, like a finger-waggling supervillain, so he can target Emma’s father in particular. How do you look at one of the most bizarre, iconic true-crime stories and think, Ehh, let me give this a little something?
NBC is making all 13 episodes of Aquarius available on streaming and on-demand after the pilot airs tonight, and that itself is an interesting experiment. But the show’s strengths — Duchovny’s smarm-tinted megacharm, a functional police procedural — don’t seem like quite enough to make people desperate for another chapter. There are better Charles Manson books and films, there are better ‘60s-set TV shows, there are more complicated and original cop characters. The moon is not in the seventh house, and thus we are not in the age of Aquarius.