Aquarius should, for many viewers, be the series to watch this summer. It’s a dark-ish 1960s crime drama full of hippies and dope, it loosely shoves Charles Manson at the center of it all, and it stars the always-great David Duchovny as the main detective who stumbles across Manson (Gethin Anthony) and co., making for a surely engaging cat-and-mouse game that brings together fiction and reality. Yet it doesn’t seem to achieve the highs that you’d hope for, at least not in the first two episodes that premiere tonight; still, the full 13-episode series will be available online on May 29, because NBC is taking an odd bet on the fact that people will want to binge-watch it.
To put it bluntly: Aquarius should be much better than it is. The pilot episode starts off lukewarm, introducing us to Sam (Duchovny), a square homicide detective who is bewildered by, and out of place with, the long-haired hippies that now surround him. A call from an old girlfriend about her daughter leads to him investigate the disappearance of a young teenager, Emma (Emma Karn, Bunheads). But Emma hasn’t so much disappeared as taken up with Charles Manson. And Charles Manson isn’t yet the Charles Manson — he’s “Charlie,” a charming guy who every girl falls in love with. He’s mostly described as a “little weird” and a good musician. Charles Manson is responsible for devastating murders; the biggest threat Aquarius‘ Charlie poses is that he might bust out “Wonderwall” on acoustic guitar at a party. It doesn’t help that Gethin Anthony tries but can’t quite capture Manson’s mannerisms, especially in comparison to the actors who previously portrayed him, and doesn’t play Manson charmingly enough to convince viewers that this is the guy who enraptured so many young women.
One of the biggest issues with Aquarius is that it starts too early in the Manson story (1967), failing to provide the awful but also intriguing part of the Charles Manson story — because, let’s face it: If you’re tuning in to watch a Manson narrative, you’re far more interested in the events directly leading up to the Sharon Tate murders (1969) than watching girls fall all over themselves around the killer. To be fair, there is a certain type of show in which this slow burn could work (and work quite well), but that show isn’t Aquarius, which balances the Manson story with a case-of-the-week procedural format. Sam works with a younger, floppy-haired detective, Brian (Grey Damon), who is allowed to keep his hair long because he can easily fit in with the hippies to do undercover work, as we quickly learn in the pilot. (This, combined with the poor screener quality, makes it sometimes impossible to distinguish Brian from Manson; the mop-top actors are practically interchangeable.)
The weekly cases can be interesting, and the dynamic between Duchovny and Damon is fine enough, though it’s strange to see Duchovny in this particular role. Spend enough time watching and rewatching The X-Files, and it becomes jarring to see Duchovny play a more straitlaced detective, the more serious of the duo, and someone who plays by the rules instead of hiding out in a dank basement grumbling about authority. But he’s certainly the highlight of the entire series thus far, like when he’s fumbling through remembering how to recite Miranda rights or clashing with his partner. It’s just too bad he doesn’t seem to have much fun with the role — he was even livelier in the detestable Californication.
It feels strange to say that Aquarius could benefit from a little more lightheartedness, considering its basic narrative is a very real, very serious and horrifying story. But the series takes itself too seriously, it’s intent on being too gritty, and it doesn’t make for an entertaining watch. It’s stiff and uncomfortable and very overt — the series screams that it’s in the ’60s through its unending and jarring music, its overreliance on references and images that we know represent the ’60s (free love, hippie girls with one braid, swaying around a circle, passing around a joint) but that don’t add much to the story besides, “Hey, yep, it’s still the ’60s in this show! Don’t forget!”
It’s possible that Aquarius rights itself throughout the remainder of the series based on NBC’s decision to bulk-release the product, assuming that we’ll all be so hooked by the end of these two episodes that we’ll need to keep going, but I have my doubts. There was nothing in the first episode that made me want to watch the second episode; I’m certainly in no rush to finish the series in a day. And again, because of the timeline, it’s fairly easy to predict that this likely won’t end with the Manson murders, but instead a plea from the writers, in the form of a cliffhanger, for a Season 2 renewal that would be more of the same blandness. A simple, solely Manson-focused story would work, as would a simple, gritty ’60s detective series. But combined, both sides collide and lessen each other’s strengths. Aquarius needs all Manson or no Manson; anything in between is weak.