In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, NBC
In the UK: Not yet acquired
You’d think, given that NBC already has the origin story of one famous serial killer in its schedules, that it would be reluctant to produce another one. But even as Hannibal is about to return to our screens this week for its third exquisite season, here comes Aquarius, which on the face of it should be a far less fictional affair, given that it’s the origin story of real-life sociopath Charles Manson and his so-called ‘Manson Family’, who in 1969 went on to kill actress Sharon Tate and six other people.
Yet, Aquarius is almost as fictional as Hannibal. It stars David Duchovny as an LAPD detective who’s brought in by an old girlfriend (Michaela McManus) to investigate the disappearance of her 16-year-old daughter (Claire Holt). Asked to keep everything quiet because of her important husband (Brían F. O’Byrne), Duchovny has to recruit a young, hip(py) detective (Grey Damon) to help him reach the communes and parties he’s can’t, and hopefully find the daughter.
Except, unfortunately, it looks like a certain Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) has already found her and recruited her to his growing ‘family’.
Billed as an event series, the show’s about as schizophrenic as they come. On the one hand, it wants to do ‘true crime’, yet practically everything and everyone involved, other than Manson and some of his family members, are fictions. Being set two years before the murders of 1969, there’s as yet no tie-ins with the real crimes and we know that unless the show takes a brief jump or two forward and introduces a whole new set of characters, there’s no chance that Manson will be behind bars by the end of the show’s run.
Yet while everything is linked to Manson, the episodes have a procedural element, with episode two taking some time out from the Manson-hunting to investigate the suspected murder of a wife by her husband, for example. The show tries hard to link this with both Manson and the era, with the surprisingly sympathetic husband nevertheless being an overt racist and the Nation of Islam turning up to give Manson’s ‘Helter Skelter’ philosophy some grounding. But as with the show’s hit-laden soundtrack, it feels as obvious as the vintage cars on display as being an attempt to simply say ‘Hey guys! It’s 1967!’ The fact there’s invariably something to do with Vietnam on the news or Vietnam is on Duchovny’s or Damon’s mind for one reason or another doesn’t help with this.
Aquarius also wants to be something of a cable show. As well as the novel aspect of NBC broadcasting the first two episodes then making the rest of the season immediately available from its web site, the show also has some quite near-the-knuckle sex scenes. Unsurprisingly, given the casting of Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon as Manson, not all of that sex is straight, and the show is happy to explore Manson’s bisexual side. There’s also a really surprising scene towards the end of the first episode, which while not quite up there with Outlander’s recent finale, is pretty horrifying.
The trouble is that all of these distinct strands don’t fit together very well at all. While the historical background detail is at least interesting and Duchovny and Damon’s pairing not as annoying as you’d think and is even quite comedic at times as they try to adjust, among other things, to this new ‘Miranda thing’, the two of them feel like they’re in a different show from Manson’s storyline. Indeed, Manson seems to think he’s in another show, too, since a lot of his storyline is about his attempts to get a record contract and his possible involvement in political corruption.
Women don’t really get served well here, either. Different times, etc, etc, but Aquarius only offers us a vision of women needing men’s help in one form or another or of messing things up by ‘transgressing’. On the plus side, though, there is at least an exploration of the race problems of the time and there are even some black characters with lines.
Compared to many NBC dramas, Aquarius isn’t half bad and I might potentially watch the rest of the season, one episode at a time, if I have time. But despite Duchovny’s presence and the potentially fascinating nature of Manson, Aquarius feels like it’s a pale imitation of a something potentially a whole lot better.