Somewhere within the mess that is “Aquarius” is an unoriginal but passable police procedural struggling to get out, but often failing against the insurmountable force of over-thought mediocrity.
The 13-episode limited series, created by John McNamara and launching Thursday, is set in Los Angeles a couple of years before Charles Manson’s followers slaughtered actress Sharon Tate and others in Benedict Canyon and the next night, killed a supermarket executive and his wife.
As “Aquarius” begins in 1967, Samson Benedictus Hodiak (David Duchovny) is a self-loathing cop trying to stay on the wagon and away from his alcoholic wife Opal (Jodi Harris). Grace Karn (Michaela McManus), a former girlfriend, contacts Hodiak after her teenage daughter Emma (Emma Dumont) goes missing. Grace is now married to Ken Karn (Brian F. O’Byrne), a powerful lawyer with ties to the Repbulican National Committee. Emma, rechristened Cherry, has hooked up with Charles Manson’s (Gethin Anthony) “family,” and is living in a communal compound off the beaten path in LA.
Hodiak is working on other cases which are intermittently more interesting than the overcooked Manson half of the series’ dual focus. Reluctantly, he’s forced to partner with a young, long-haired hotshot named Brian Shafe (Gray Damon), who is deemed more suitable to work undercover among hippies, drug dealers, gay men and other “degenerates.”
Hodiak’s life is complicated, and the complications often intrude in his work. For one thing, he’s still hot for Grace, and she’s still percolating as well. For another, Sam’s colleague, Ed (Chance Kelly), is sleeping with Opal. Meanwhile, Sam’s son, Walt (Chris Sheffield), suddenly shows up on his doorstep.
It’s all enough to drive a man back to drink, which it does for Sam, with clockwork predictability.
On paper, there is potential value in weaving Manson mythology, much of it fictionalized, into cases of drug dealing and murder that occupy Hodiak and Shafe much of the time. Some of the links work, despite feeling artificial. Others don’t, though, and that’s because McNamara has mostly bitten off more than he can chew. He wants to essentially use Manson as a kind of lens on the tumultuous last years of the decade, a manifestation of the social and political unrest that seemed to keep the nation on edge.
One problem with that is that Manson and his family look about as much like authentic hippies as Young Republicans at a Nixon rally, or backup singers on “The Donny and Marie Show.” Anthony is probably too handsome to bring complete credibility to Manson. But his biggest obstacles are script and direction. His Manson may come off as threatening at times, but overall, he’s just not believable enough to be very scary. Worse, at times he’s just silly.
The series is graced with several good performances, though. Damon is often magnetic as a young man whose job is to uphold the law while his peers are often outside picketing the establishment. O’Byrne is superb as a key Republican player with a lot of secrets in his life, and Dumont may not make you believe she’s really 16, but she does embody the kind of youthful confusion that could lead a young girl to a manipulator like Charles Manson. Jason Ralph is great as Mike Vickery, a jittery druggie who ends up being a kind of sex slave to an older woman who runs a strip joint known as the Peach Pussycat. Gaius Charles is equally fine as Bunchy, a Black Panther leader who is forced to forge an alliance with Hodiak.
Unfortunately, McManus’ wooden performances makes her more decorative than essential as Grace Karn, and the actresses playing the Manson girls are both indistinguishable from each other and forgettable, which may be the point.
Duchovny is the center of the show regardless of his performance, which is often hobbled by the mediocre script. In general, Hodiak’s a guy trying to do the right thing, but breaking rules left and right, in life and on the job.
“Aquarius” is watchable, but oddly bland, given its subject matter. It’s not so much “Helter Skelter” as it is “The Long and Winding Road.”
“Aquarius” debuts at 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC. Following the 2-hour premiere, all 13 episodes will be available at NBC.com and on the NBC app.