The new NBC miniseries Aquarius has one thing going for it in star David Duchovny, who is pretty much watchable in anything. But in Aquarius, a patchwork pastiche of 1960s clichés that tracks the killings of Charles Manson through a hippy-trippy Los Angeles, you find yourself really wishing you were watching Duchovny in The X-Files instead.
Nor does it help that in spite of kicking a lot of ass, playing a little guitar and having a punching bag at his house, he’s actually the prototypical square cop. Who wants Mulder (or Duchovny) to be the establishment?
But Duchovny is Duchovny and he can turn almost any dialog into something you’ll watch for an hour as he winks, smirks and acts the hell out of what he’s given. Aquarius, however, tests the limits of Ducovny’s allure, raising the question of just how many hours his performance alone can keep us interested?
After the May 29 premiere, NBC is making all 13 episodes available online in one of those “what is NBC doing?” moments that no sane person can really figure out. Maybe Aquarius — created, written and executive produced by John McNamara (In Plain Sight) — was something that NBC loved in the pitch and then kind of forgot about in a “we loved Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once, too” moments. Who knows? But you really do have to wonder what’s going on when some entity other than Netflix or Amazon unceremoniously dumps 13 episodes onto the Internet.
You can imagine NBC getting caught up in the idea that Aquarius could be some kind of hip, limited series period piece — but it just doesn’t pull it off. Even Mad Men struggled to get the 1960s just right, a decade now hopelessly lost to cliché and corny costume dramas. It’s a decade that’s very difficult to pull off with authenticity even five decades later. McNamara goes after it partly, it seems, because Los Angeles in 1967 is alluring to lots of people who work in Los Angeles in 2015.
The trouble is: How do you make a miniseries about Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) and hippies and old school cops and race relations and Republican politics without the whole thing feeling like a gigantic stereotype before you even get it off the ground? Aquarius proves pretty quickly that you don’t.
Here Manson seems less like a scary, mesmerizing presence than a hipster with some songs that are supposed to be pretty great but pale intolerably in comparison to the pricey soundtrack the era’s big hits. Duchovny plays Detective Sam Hodiak, which sounds like “Zodiac” every time you hear it. He’s an old-school cop from the wrong war who’s used to kicking around hippies and minorities because that’s just what cops did back then. In a conventional odd-couple set up, Hodiak is paired with a young, he-looks-like-a-hippie-but-he’s-a-cop partner named Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), but the two never really work up much of a connection. In other words, Shafe is no Scully.
Anthony isn’t very convincing as Manson and without charm or allure, which makes all the “girls” who flip for Charlie (of course, in real life they did) appear utterly clueless and their attraction inconceivable. At the center of the story there’s Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), a runaway 16-year-old girl whose parents’ (Brian F. O’Byrne and Michaela McManus) unsuccessful marriage feels like an insufficiently disastrous impetus to drive her into the arms of Charlie Manson.The Karn family dynamics are more annoying than scary or representative of the generational divide of the mid-60s. Their relatively mild issues are just a convenient guise to get Emma to Manson, and it’s hard to get invested in the storyline.
That mild quality and the lack of investment plagues that series as a whole. Just as you want Duchovny to be Mulder, you also want a scarier Manson and a more atmospheric look at a very specific time and place — not something that feels dated before the first commercial break.
Unless there are some Mad Men outtakes out there somewhere, maybe we should all take a break from watching the impossible 60s for a while. It’s been done to death, and all that leaves is the copycat impression of well-worn tropes and stereotypes. Even Duchovny can’t spin that into something fresh.