It’s the summer of love, and a madman is roaming the Hollywood Hills like a rabid coyote hunting for prey. No, silly, not Don Draper. We’re talking about Charles Manson, the cult leader whose grisly murders with the so-called Manson family stunned the nation. On Aquarius, NBC’s latest stab at bleak-chic prestige TV, Manson isn’t yet the Darth Vader of home-invading psychos, though the dark side runs strong in him: Here in 1967, Prequel Chuck (Gethin Anthony) is an ex-con and budding rock star with a growing, mostly female following hypnotized by his radical counterculture patter. Gazing upon a serpentine traffic jam, the wannabe Lizard King says, “The snake eats the world. We eat the snake.” He talks the trippy talk, but how does he plan to walk his revolutionary walk? With music? Mayhem? Actual snake-eating?
History has spoiled the answer; Aquarius tries to make thecontext entertaining. The show has the scope and scuzz of a sprawling James Ellroy pulp narrative: Showrunner John McNamara (In Plain Sight) uses Manson as a stalking horse for a slow- moving saga that winds through an underworld L.A., a microcosm of helter-skelter America, losing its mind, character, and moral authority from Vietnam, social unrest, and generational conflict. Our hero, Sam Hodiak, played by The X-Files’ David Duchovny, is the anti-Mulder: He’s the establishment incarnate, a hard-ass cop who doesn’t care much for those damn long-haired hippies and their damn rock music. Naturally, his new partner Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, late of Star-Crossed and Friday Night Lights) is one such shaggy rebel. He’s got an African-American wife who’s less of a character and more of a badge to identify Brian as an enlightened white male. He’s outraged when his fellow cops get rough with some protesters—a rare moment in which Aquarius resonates with the now.
Together Hodiak and Shafe search for Emma (Emma Dumont), the daughter of an attorney who works for Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign. Manson has seduced Emma into his freaky fold, but his real target is Dad, with whom he has a complex relationship. None of this is as compelling as it could be. Beyond the rockin’ soundtrack, the flat storytelling has no pop. Bingeing on all 13 eps—available online after the broadcast premiere—might not help: I watched four in one day and felt no satisfying traction. Duchovny seems miscast as the square. He loos- ens up the part with flashes of wry, quirky humor, but the bad-fit feel never fades. And Manson is shockingly bland despite his noxious, rapacious, nihilistic behavior. Anthony fails to suggest genu- ine depth or menace. When a stoned Manson looks to camera and bellows, “That acid kicking in yet?!” I bellowed back, “Tell me about it!” C+