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Review: David Duchovny chases Charles Manson in NBC’s underwhelming ‘Aquarius’

Senior Television Writer
05.27.15 22 Comments

NBC

In “Aquarius,” David Duchovny plays an LA cop in 1967 with old-school hair and old-school values. Asked to find a teenage girl who has vanished into the city's hippie underbelly, he reluctantly teams with a shaggy-haired young cop with crazy new ideas about civil liberties and equality. Very quickly, then, the series sets itself up as an ideological  clash between the veteran and the rookie, even as they collaborate to find the girl and potentially put a charge on the charismatic guy named Charles Manson who has her under his sway.

The generation gap on the show is pretty stock stuff, unfortunately. Far more interesting, if not creatively successful, is the way that “Aquarius” itself is caught between multiple generations of television at once, attempting to function simultaneously as a broadcast network drama, an edgier cable-style show, and something designed to be binged like it was being released by Netflix or Amazon.

The “event series” (new Hollywood speak for “ongoing series in success, miniseries in failure”) has a traditional premiere tomorrow at 9 p.m. on NBC, and will air weekly on Thursdays for the rest of the summer. Once the first two episodes finish airing that night, though, the rest of the 13-episode season will be made available online and On Demand for anyone who doesn't want to wait to see the story through to its conclusion. It's an experiment on NBC's part to see how many people choose to marathon it, how that impacts old-fashioned linear ratings, and whether this is something NBC and other broadcasters might want to try with other new shows, particularly during the regular season.

The problem is that “Aquarius” was clearly not made with the binge in mind. Run by TV veteran John McNamara (“Eyes,” “Fastlane”), the show starts out with a serialized mystery in mind, as teenager Emma (Emma Dumont from “Bunheads”) runs away from home and falls in with a crew run by Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony from “Game of Thrones”), who at this point is just a would-be rock star rather than an infamous mass murderer and source of a thousand “Mad Men” conspiracy theories. But by starting the story so long before the deaths of Sharon Tate and Manson's other victims, though, there's only so much that McNamara can let his fictional cops Sam Hodiak (Duchovny) and Brian Shafe (Grey Damon from “Friday Night Lights”) do with or to the Manson Family. As a result, the next several episodes devote most of their time to the detectives investigating crimes that either tangentially involve Manson or have nothing at all to do with him, but are there to fulfill the Case of the Week structure most network procedural cop shows depend on. And even with some good guest actors (like “Homicide” vet Kyle Secor in the second episode) playing victims or suspects, those things are an enormous drag on the show's overall narrative momentum. There's no sense at the end of any one installment that you have to immediately rush to watch the next one, which is why I eventually gave up after spending an afternoon watching four of the 13 episodes NBC sent to critics.

Then again, the ongoing elements aren't significantly more exciting. Duchovny's usual underplaying isn't a great fit playing a guy who's meant to be a slightly cooler version of Joe Friday(*). Hodiak and Shafe are meant to come into frequent conflict over their different attitudes about policing – Shafe wants his partner to do “that new Miranda thing” when arresting suspects, for instance – but Duchovny seems only vaguely interested in any of that stuff. And while Gethin Anthony is probably to be commended for not going down the familiar twitchy path of Steve Railsback, Jeremy Davies and other actors who played Manson – this version of the character, after all, has to be believable as someone a girl like Emma would want to abandon her life to be around – his version isn't charismatic enough to carry the long stretches where Manson is operating away from the view of the cops.

(*) Do yourself a favor and spend three minutes watching Friday and Bill Gannon lecture a bunch of hippies from the same era in which “Aquarius” is set. You'll be glad you did, and sad that “Aquarius” doesn't aspire to this didactic level:

There are times when “Aquarius” seems to want to deploy every cliche for dramatizing the late '60s (when Emma arrives at the party where she meets Manson, “White Rabbit” immediately comes on the soundtrack), and others where the show tries very hard to work against expectations (the fashions aren't overdone, and about half the songs  would be too obscure to qualify for use in “Forrest Gump”). On average, though, it's about what you would expect if you heard NBC was doing a cop show set in 1967.

It's entirely possible that “Aquarius” gets more complicated or engaging as it gets deeper into the season, or even that McNamara is pulling an “Inglourious Basterds” and has designs on letting Hodiak change history. But there wasn't enough in the early episodes to make me invest more time in the series, and I wonder if NBC's experiment is going to fail because they didn't let McNamara make a show designed to be marathoned in the first place.

NBC's executives are trying this because they, like everyone else in TV, aren't sure what the future of the business will look like. “Aquarius,” unfortunately, is stuck too much in the past to offer much in the way of valuable information.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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