Jul 29, 2020
BINGE OR NO? Aquarius, Season 1 (Groovin’ with the Manson Family)
Warning: This overview contains spoilers for episodes 1-4, but it doesn’t matter much as nothing happens that’s surprising.
The song “Aquarius” was the showstopper in Hair, the 1960s Broadway musical, which was a blatant attempt to cash in on the counterculture. It was about as real an anthem of the time as the coke commercial that ended Mad Men. The new historical murder mystery series Aquarius throws in every 60s signifier possible, but like the song still manages to feel no more authentic than Astroturf—a product invented in 1965 that will likely be referenced in an upcoming episode.
Set in L.A. in 1967, Aquarius is cop show whose protagonist Sam Hodiak, a tough old-school homicide detective played by a woefully miscast David Duchovny, comes up against a long-haired, guitar-playing, no-goodnik by the name of Charlie—Charlie Manson. It’s three years before the Tate-LaBianca murders that would expose the dark underbelly of free love. Unless the series takes a huge turn away from reality, we know this won’t end well.
If Manson is watching, he must love the show, which portrays him as a canny supervillain and charismatic underworld leader. Hannibal Lector with a beard. He doesn’t just stay home on the ranch, getting his girls to do all his dirty work, but may appear from the shadows in the parking garage below a Nixon fundraiser to get rapey with the ultra-closeted, politically connected lawyer whom he is blackmailing.
It’s a bold gambit, putting a still living “historical” personage front and center, and turning him into comic book nemesis, as eccentric and omnipresent as the Joker, whom the Batman and Robin team of Hodiak and his partner, young Brian Shafe, can never quite catch. Does it work? Not completely, at least not in the first four episodes, which move at a leisurely a pace and are marred by way too many vaguely connected storylines.
As in much classic California noir (see MacDonald, Ross and Chandler, Raymond) there’s family drama at the heart of the plot. Emma Karn, a sweet-waif with Susan Sarandon eyes, has run away from her uptight dysfunctional parents and joined Charlie’s stable of mostly female followers. Her father is Ken Karn, the aforementioned lawyer. Karn once got Charlie off (heh-heh) with a light sentence on a drug charge when he was facing a serious pandering rap. In return, Charlie didn’t expose the peccadilloes of Karn’s powerful friends. Charlie’s been calling Karn’s office trying to get his help in his never-ending quest to be a rock star bigger than The Beatles, but Karn’s secretary won’t put him through. Like Hitler, things would have been better for the world (maybe) if only his artistic genius had been recognized.
Charlie finagles a plan to make Emma his own in order to get to her father. When she goes missing, her mother Grace turns to her old beau, and possibly the love of her life, Sam Hodiak for help. Finding Emma will be a strictly off-the-books operation as the family cannot afford a scandal.
Brian Shafe is the “new-kind-of-cop” Hodiak seeks out to help him. They become partners because the show needs to have someone under forty in a leading role. Besides, who doesn’t like buddy-cop teams in which the hotshot new guy and the crusty old timer bond despite their differences and learn from each other? We can never get too much of that.
Shafe’s been working as an undercover hippie on drug busts, so he has the requisite facial hair, but he served in ‘Nam, so we know he’s no pansy coward. Hodiak’s war was WWII, the big one. On their first outing as partners there’s a too long discussion of reading a perp his Miranda rights to remind us this was a new thing back then, and the partners may have conflicting views of how to get the job done. Shafe is all about the civil liberties while Hodiak is of the backroom head-bashing school. Later, when Hodiak ignores the casual racism of another cop, Shafe makes it clear he’s not down with that, and to make his point introduces Hodiak to his black wife and baby girl.
Yup, folks, Shafe is a hip, mod squad type, who understands the young people, doesn’t want to violate anyone’s rights, is a Vietnam veteran, AND has a black wife and adorable caramel-colored daughter. He probably isn’t even on the take. How likely is this particular trifecta to ever have happened in L.A.’s super conservative, 99% white, notoriously corrupt, 1960s police force? Well to be fair, New York did have Frank Serpico, but look where being different got him.
This laying it on with details that scream out sixties in dayglow letters that soar a thousand feet high is one of show’s major faults. It’s like being hit over the head with a tie-dye covered anvil, or maybe Maxwell’s silver hammer. Hodiak doesn’t just have a son who happens to be serving in Vietnam. In one of the shows many subplots, his son has deserted because we need more generational conflict.
Then there’s the race thing. Good on the show for bringing up the endemic racism of the L.A. police force in olden times. Isn’t it great how much that’s changed? Too bad they didn’t give us any black characters who don’t only exist to make a point (Shafe’s wife) or are portrayed as wrongheaded stereotypes—like the militant/activist who doesn’t want anyone in the community to cooperate with the cops, even the “good” ones trying to find the killer of local merchant.
About that activist, first we see this very angry black man in the bow tie and dark suit of the Nation of Islam, but the next time we meet him he’s wearing the leather jacket and beret of the Black Panthers—a too quick turnaround that implies a man of not-too-many convictions. He credits Hodiak with saying something that sparked the costume change and spouts some Trotsky at him, and Hodiak recognizes it as Trotsky because aren’t all police officers familiar with the finer points of dialectical materialism?
Just like the show’s resident cult leader hippie had to be Charlie Manson and not Harley Danson, this black revolutionary is neither wholly made up nor a composite, but a real historical figure plopped into a fictional universe. He’s Bunchy Carter, a founding member of L.A.’s Black Panthers, and while he was with the Nation before that, it was Eldridge Cleaver that made him think about their contradictions and sparked the change, not a white cop. And it probably didn’t involve that sudden a change of outfits. His hostility towards the police was well founded. Turns out they used agents provocateurs and dirty tricks to divide militant factions. Worked pretty well. Carter would be assassinated before the decade ended. Wonder if Aquarius will go there?
Aquarius aims to be the ultimate 1960s compilation, featuring politics, sex, drugs, music, racial unrest, youth rebellion, women’s issues, and Vietnam, plus the old Hollywood glamour with its underlying decay. And it’s all tied up with a bow using Manson’s guitar string as the ribbon. That’s not in itself a bad approach. His crimes have fascinated us going on forty-five years, and it’s not the first time they’ve been used as a metaphorical capstone for the sixties. Remember how everyone was salivating at the thought of a Mad Men finale featuring Megan Draper as Sharon Tate? But for Aquarius it’s a heavy load to bear, and not the only thing weighing down the ship.
Which brings us to the performers. Let’s start with Gethin Anthony, a.k.a. Renly (killed by a dark shadow from Melisandre’s lady parts) Baratheon on Game of Thrones. This is his first trip over to this side of the pond, and he hasn’t quite got the accent. Who knew Manson was Australian? Or from Ireland? Or Alabama, maybe? Where’s a dialect coach when you need one? Gethin does manage to capture the rhythms of Charlie-speak, but it’s unclear if he learned them listening to tapes of the man himself or to Bob Odenkirk’s brilliant turn on The Ben Stiller Show. Or maybe Odenkirk simply ruined anyone else in the role for us ever. (Damn you, Bob Odenkirk.)
However, Gethin’s not the main casting problem. The hands down winner of that honor is David Duchovny. Granted, they’ve made Hodiak so all over the place that no actor alive wouldn’t have trouble pinning him down, but it’s not a role that plays to the actor’s strengths. Here’s a brief rundown of Hodiak’s traits:
- He’s a probable Republican who encouraged his son to join the army and go to Vietnam because it’s what he would have done.
- He’s a tough guy cop who’ll do what he has to bring in the perps, including beating out a confession if he’s sure he’s got the right guy.
- He appreciates jazz.
- The jazz thing makes him cooler than the average middle-aged white cop.
Also the ladies like him, and he can rock a pair of sunglasses.
So let’s add that up and see what we get—tough guy, jazz-loving, Republican, macho sex machine with shades. Oh my god, it’s Dirty Harry! There’s even a scene where Hodiak is beating on some punk who takes out a knife, and while Hodiak doesn’t actually say, “Go ahead and make my day,” he comes close enough that it wouldn’t be a shock if in a future episode Hodiak runs into Clint Eastwood-of-40 years-ago and producer Don Siegel, who are both so taken with the detective they decide to base a character on him in an upcoming film. It’s that kind of show.
So binge or no binge? Despite its flaws, it might be worth sticking around to see where it goes. There’s a looming darkness running through the enterprise, a shadow much larger than the one that engulfed Renly on Game of Thrones. If Aquarius stops clumsily reminding us what decade it’s set in and begins to connect its disparate threads, then the series might be as close as television will ever come to capturing the paranoia of the decade that gave us all those conspiracy theories we’re still unraveling.
Where to watch? The first season is currently bingeable free on Hulu and NBC, but NBC is threatening to end that so you may have to wait ‘til episodes air if you don’t act now.