“Goddamn Hippies!” – Eric Cartman, “South Park”
Thursdays at 9:00 p.m.
Set in 1967’s Summer of Love, NBC’s “Aquarius” finds itself filled with a bevy of the weed-smoking counter culturists, ready to say “man” a million times and be annoyingly uncooperative toward series protagonist, detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, “The X-Files”).
Filled with neo-noir overtones, the show paints Hodiak as the typical grizzled veteran clashing with the younger generation, embodied by young undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon, “Twisted”). True to type, Hodiak lives a lonely life, with a soon-to-be ex-wife (Jodi Harris, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and a struggle to not slip back into alcoholism, which he undoubtedly succumbs to.
Hodiak’s life becomes a lot more interesting, though, when a former lover, Grace (Michaela McManus, “Awake”), asks him to help locate her daughter Emma (Emma Dumont, “Inherent Vice”), who has run away from home and taken up with what happens to be the eventual Manson Family, led by the Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony, “Game of Thrones”) himself.
NBC has staked an interest in the series, putting all episodes online, available to stream instantly. It’s a bold move by the network in an industry that has been upheaved by the presence of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. However, “Aquarius” lacks the inherent binge-ability present in series such as “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.”
The biggest issue present in its early episodes is that “Aquarius” struggles to establish a forward momentum necessary to convince a viewer to plunge themselves down the rabbit hole and watch multiple episodes in one sitting. Hodiak’s storyline unfortunately gets bogged down in a case-of-the-week structure that looks to serve as a Sparknotes guide to all the issues that were brewing during the late 1960s. A notable example is African-American activist, Bunchy (Gaius Charles, “Friday Night Lights”), who starts as a member of the Nation of Islam in the second episode and then converts to the Black Panther Party by the fifth. Bunchy’s change is never fully seen during the initial episodes, just the result. Instead of feeling organic, his evolution is reduced to a plot point by the writers so they can continue crafting their ’60s historical primer.
The proto-Manson family also struggles. While Anthony presents Manson with solid contrast of menacing and delusional, his storyline about wanting to enter the music business and the life within his commune, while based on Manson’s life, doesn’t make for very exciting content. Manson is at his best when he’s trying to force people to bend to his will, preying on their fears and insecurities while presenting himself as either a savior or executioner. But the end goals, like getting a demo recorded, are incredibly low stakes.
Emma’s presence doesn’t aid the Manson storyline either. The character is just dull, serving as the conventionally misunderstood teen, whose parents are too busy arguing to pay attention to how hard she has it as an attractive upper-class white girl. The only entertainment the character gives is an unintentionally hilarious acid trip near the end of Episode 4, filled with bad acting and worse effects.
Seeped in sepia tones, “Aquarius” does present an intriguing setting for a noir-influenced show. The social conflicts are present; one case involving a cop and a Black teenager being choked to death eerily echoes with current events. Duchovny is more than serviceable as a troubled detective trying to do right within an increasingly apathetic precinct. However, the tendency of the show to fall back to familiar procedural formulas while never fully creating an engrossing overarching narrative prevents “Aquarius” from being the binge-worthy show it hopes to be.