MIPCOM: The Making of NBC's Charles Manson Thriller 'Aquarius'

'Aquarius' – ITV Global Studios Entertainment

Californication star David Duchovny returns to broadcast television with this period cop drama, which Tomorrow Studios is producing for NBC. Set in the late 1960s, it features Duchovny as an L.A. police sergeant who starts tracking a suspicious small time criminal called Charles Manson.

“NBC said If you make it within this budget you have total freedom. Make a cable show,” says series creator John McNamara about the '60s period drama starring David Duchovny

In a year packed with new series, Aquarius, the new period thriller starring David Duchovny, has been one of the most-talked about fiction shows at this year's MIPCOM international television market.

The show, which will premiere on NBC, features Duchovny as an L.A. cop in the 1960s on the trail of Charles Manson. Grey Damon co-stars as a young, rebellious detective who goes undercover to help him while Game of Thrones actor Gethin Anthony plays Manson.

ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which is selling the show internationally, held a premiere screening of the Aquarius pilot to a backed room of buyers and media at MIPCOM on Monday.

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So it's strange to think that creator John McNamara originally came up with the idea for the Aquarius story as a way to get out of TV.

“The development of Aquarius was I was really sick of television, I'd been doing it for 30 years,” says McNamara, whose writing and production credits include In Plain Sight and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. His original plan for Aquarius was to do a quintet of novels that would trace the Manson story, and the transformation of America, in the period from 1967 through 1971. But when McNamara mentioned the idea to producer Marty Adelstein, he shot him down.

“Marty said, 'Wait, wait, let me stop you, it's stupid.' I go 'The idea is stupid?' And he goes, 'No, the idea's great' but doing it as a novel you will never hear the music, and the music is the era," McNamara recalls. “I paused and I thought, 'Oh boy, I'm doing a TV show.'”

McNamara and Adelstein quickly sold the idea for Aquarius to a cable network — “I'd prefer not to say which one,” says McNamara — but the project stalled. When it finally went into turnaround, Adelstein took a different approach and pitched the idea to Duchovny's manager Melanie Green.

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“I said 'I have a script that is the perfect evolution for David and his career,'” says Adelstein. “(Duchovny) showed up two days later to meet with John and I, and said 'I'm in.'”

With the star attached, McNamara and Adelstein pitched the show again, this time as a 13-episode, straight-to-series order.

“Every network had a chance to bid on it and, strangely, one of the few networks that didn't bid was the original network that bought it,” says McNamara, “my understanding is they regret that massively today because they've seen it. In the end, we went with NBC because they said: 'If you make it within this budget you have total freedom. Make a cable show.”

The dark tone and edgy subject matter of Aquarius make it a suitable companion for NBC's Hannibal, another straight-to-series order for the network. McNamara says Aquarius will push the boundaries of what's allowed on a broadcast show and that NBC is encouraging him to take the series into territory usually reserved for the cable networks.

“Look, (the broadcast networks) are sick of sitting at the Emmys and having to clap politely for everyone else,” he says. “They want to win. And to win you have to take chances.”

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Aquarius is certainly ambitious. McNamara has an entire six-season plot line fully developed for the show, with each season spanning six months, starting in October 1967 and ending in January, 1968. If the show lasts that long, the final, sixth season will jump the story forward to 1983.

“In the gall of '67 everything was light, music, beauty, free love, and within six months Martin Luther King is dead. Within eight months Bobby is dead,” adds McNamara. “Very quickly after that you have these incredible riots and then very, very quickly after that you have Tate-LaBianca murders (by the Manson family).”

“That period was a pivotal moment in our country,” says Adelstein, “I grew up in LA, I was a kid then and it changed everything. We never used to lock our doors until Manson happened. That's what makes this story so fascinating is that it could turn on a dime.”

NBC plans to premiere Aquarius early next year.

Twitter: @sroxborough