'Aquarius' Boss Says NBC's Charles Manson Drama Is "Historical Fiction"

AQUARIUS S01E01 Still - H 2015
Vivian Zink/NBC

AQUARIUS S01E01 Still - H 2015

Back in the mid-1990s, John McNamara co-created what he feels is one of the first criminal anti-heroes to lead a network television show with Fox's Profit, and the veteran producer is at it again with NBC's Aquarius, a period drama featuring a fictionalized version of Charles Manson.

The 1960s drama stars The X-Files' David Duchovny as a Los Angeles police sergeant investigating a then-unknown Manson (played by Gethin Anthony) in a drama that, to hear McNamara tell it, doesn't condone Manson's brutality but looks to enlighten, entertain and potentially warn others of the dangers that lurk within.

"To portray something is not to condone it," McNamara tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The responsibility is within each of us to not be anything but enlightened, entertained and possibly warned. Because there’s nothing inside Charles Manson that’s not within all of us: he has the same DNA, muscle, blood, maybe his brain chemistry is a little different, but he’s just a guy who made choices, and his choices were bad."

But Aquarius isn't solely focused on the man who became one of the most infamous criminals of the 20th century. Instead, it is split between Manson's early days trying to make music and filling a compound with adrift followers, and the hardened cop (Duchovny) who gets tipped off to Manson and begins to track him — not knowing the potential he has to escalate to true evil.

THR spoke with McNamara about his show's dual perspectives, as well as the scope of the 13-episode series for both characters.

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The audience is going into Aquarius knowing what Manson was capable of doing and therefore having certain expectations for what your version will be. How will the show balance what viewers know while still telling a new story?

We’re not telling the true story of Charles Manson; it’s historical fiction. When Gore Vidal wrote one of my favorite novels, Burr about Aaron Burr — that’s not a biography; it’s taking this controversial figure and saying “What if?” That’s what the exercise of Aquarius is. I did a lot of research about what Manson recounted about those earlier years after prison but before the murders. I don’t think he was a simple figure of evil; he was an extraordinarily intelligent, damaged person. He was a guy who, as I got deeper into his psyche, I kept thinking, “God, what if this guy had just sold a song? What if this guy had not gotten doors shut in his face?” And I’m making zero excuses for who he is; he made his choices. But his childhood was one of abuse and depravation, and he survived that childhood, as many people do, by becoming duplicitous and violent. Although I believe he felt strongly he could remake himself after prison and enter the age of love, the Age of Aquarius and all of that stuff, the minute he hit truly large obstacles emotionally and in his career, he reverted to criminal activity. And he couldn’t change that. He was very clever in selecting his army, [but] it was an army of damaged followers, which is why it was doomed.

The show starts in 1967. Manson has been in prison before, but for pettier crimes compared to what he will go on to do. How much time and escalation will you cover in the first season?

Figuratively, in a way it’s like watching Casino Royale: you’re watching Bond before Bond. You’re watching before License to Kill and the first girl he meets and on. So with Manson, you’re watching this man trying to escape a web, but it just keeps getting tighter, and by the way, he’s spinning his own web. I planned out the show in terms of six seasons, and every season is approximately six months, so it’s a lot. If you Wikipedia Manson, he was doing stuff, some of which we portray in the show, and some of which we are making leaps and connecting dots ourselves. He was not inactive. He’s a psychopath and we do not shy away from that. I don’t believe you’re going to finish watching episode 13 and say, “Wow, that was a big jerk off; he didn’t do anything!” He goes there. It’s not going to have a happy ending; we all know that, but that actually informs the suspense nicely in a way that I feel allowed us occasionally to slow down the storytelling a little bit.

Were there concerns you had about telling this story on network television where you can't show all of the things that made Manson, or the time period, unique — like the random topless women lying around his compound?

We actually cut two versions of each episode — one for the network and one for digital. They were really great about letting us tell the story the way we wanted to as long as we didn't go over budget, so we do have a version of each episode that is [uncensored]. We have a deal with Amazon and iTunes, and we think it will also make the show more appealing to Europe this way. We do go there. We have to. Manson was all sex and violence and cursing. And I keep saying, "Male full frontal in season two!"

Often on shows where a cop is chasing a criminal, the latter is constantly outsmarting the former. Was there a conscious effort with Aquarius to show Duchovny as Sam Hodiak actually solve other cases and be good at his job and break that cycle?

That is a huge part of us having David Duchovny play the character. David’s character is an enormously competent police officer, but he’s [also] enormously complex with huge flaws, and one of Sam Hodiak’s flaws is hopefully one we can all empathize with, which is you don’t know evil when you see it. When I pitched him this character, I told him all [six seasons] of it, and said, “In short, David, if you take on this character, you have to be willing to completely unravel." And there was a long pause, and he looked at me, and he said in his very still tone, “I’m ready to unravel."

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How will he unravel in the first season, and how connected is his unraveling to the fact that he can't make charges stick on Charlie?

You get a sense of it in the first [episodes already]. It’s like a fog he’s in, and it’s like complete impotence. He can’t save people who don’t want to be saved; he can’t change the culture; he can’t change Manson. All you can do is kill him or not kill him, and that becomes a decision in the middle of the season. Everything is going to haunt him. He drinks; he can be violent. The character’s very physical, and David completely changed the way he looks for this role. Those destructive threads almost lie in that physique because it’s the physique of a soldier who’s slowly aging and who’s not happy about that because his ways to achieve his ends are not working anymore. That’s why he recruits Shafe [Grey Damon] — because he can’t keep beating up hippies!

Speaking of Shafe, he and Hodiak come from different schools of thought on how to do the same job. How does their relationship develop over the first season?

They like each other. It’s complicated, but I would say it has a lot of the earmarks of a father/son relationship — both the good and the bad. They’re competitive; they’re from different generations so they see some things differently; the bond is deep, but the wrong words at the wrong time can cut it. 

The time period is so important to this show. How do you show the changing attitudes toward race and politics intersecting with Manson, as opposed to just being extra layers that flesh out the world?

Race and politics [are] the third wheel of the show. Well, certainly Ken Karn works for Richard Nixon, and Ken Karn is a friend of Ronald Reagan’s, and that’s not going to go away. That’s a huge aspect of the show. And the season ender involves political aspirations that are on the line, and you see Manson’s ability to manipulate even the most sophisticated political person.

Aquarius premieres May 28 at 9 p.m. on NBC. Will you tune in? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Twitter: @danielletbd