Aquarius was a disappointment but could be better without one character

May 29, 2015 at 8:43 a.m. ET
Image: NBC

David Duchovny's (The X-Files) return to network TV is dampened by a story line that emphasizes a caricature of Charles Manson over originality.

David Duchovny's return to network TV in NBC's Aquarius is underwhelming, but not for the reasons you would think. On its own, Aquarius is a compelling cop show with two strong leads at its center. Duchovny fans will be delighted to see the actor channeling his inner Mulder in the role of the old school cop Sam Hodiak, a man with a dry sense of humor and a strong sense of duty.

At Duchovny's side is Grey Damon's Brian, a young, undercover cop brought in to bridge the gap between the aging Hodiak and the kids partaking in the "summer of love." Duchovny and Damon's chemistry is effortless. Together, they make Aquarius worth watching, but the show has a major problem it will not be able to overcome — Charles Manson.

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Anytime a real-life figure is brought to life on-screen it is naturally going to be distracting. There are ways to minimize the distraction, the best one being keeping the figure out of sight to emphasize their larger-than-life qualities (the 2007 film Zodiac is an excellent example of how to make the out-of-sight, haunting-your-mind technique work). Unfortunately, Aquarius plays all of its cards at once by putting Manson front and center, and the show suffers as a result.

Gethin Anthony (best known as Renly Baratheon from Game of Thrones) is not the least bit intimidating or charismatic in the role of Manson. Anthony was winning on Thrones, but he is painfully out of his element as the sadistic Manson. Every time the two-hour premiere turned its attention to Manson and his cult, the show grounded to a stuttering halt.

Manson is one of the most notorious figures in American culture. There is no one in the audience who does not know how this man's story plays out, and this sucks all the action out of Aquarius. How can there be a cat-and-mouse game when we know the cat is sitting in prison? Furthermore, giving Manson and his followers more attention feels wrong on so many levels.

A fictionalized cult leader would have worked much better here and given Aquarius room to breathe. As it stands, the show is suffocating under the weight of history when it could be using the cultural shifts the '60s era setting brings to its advantage.

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Throughout both episodes, Manson spouts nonsense to his young, female followers and wields a switchblade with deadly accuracy, but it is all pomp and circumstance. There is nothing menacing or original in this take on Manson and his "family," and every attempt to wink at the audience with talk of a music career or philosophical blathering fails miserably. Aquarius does the impossible and makes the terrifying Charles Manson a bore. If the best Manson could offer was a vague commentary on how the Los Angeles freeway would eat people up, no one would have bought what he was selling.

Aquarius Manson

Image: NBC

If only Manson were a small part of Aquarius, it would be easy to forgive the show for this one transgression. Unfortunately, Manson is the lynchpin on which the first season hangs. It is a shame, too, because the characters of Hodiak and Brian are more than enough to hold the audience's attention.

In the second hour, Hodiak and Brian take on a stand-alone case where they tackle racial issues in a volatile, realistic manner. It is in this hour that we get a glimpse of what might have been. The political is personal for Brian, whose wife and child are black, and Hodiak potentially makes a dangerous enemy by using a future Black Panther member as a chess piece.

This is where the meat of Aquarius is— in the interactions between two very different, challenging and equally compelling men. I would have watched that show religiously, possibly for years to come. Sadly, Manson cannot be ignored.

Duchovny commands the screen when Hodiak is on, but every minute spent away from him is a minute the itch to change the channel becomes all too real. NBC is trying something new with Aquarius by making the entire season available on demand immediately. Even with the binge-watch option, Manson's shadow looms too large to escape. The character is tied to the central story in a way that would leave very little show to watch if his scenes were skipped.

More: 12 Episodes of The X-Files that demand a rewatch

In the end, Aquarius is a well-cast cop show with a real-life twist dragging it down. It is best to add Aquarius to the long list of things Manson has ruined and be glad Duchovny will return to TV again in winter 2015 for The X-Files revival on Fox. Unless there is a major shift in the show's focus, the age of Aquarius will not last long.