The most notable thing about NBC's new dark crime thriller Aquarius is how it's being distributed. The series' first episode debuted Thursday, May 28, but its entire first season is now streaming on the network's website. New episodes will unspool on the network every Thursday at 9 pm Eastern, but for those who get really into the series, the whole thing will be right there waiting.
It's part of the network's attempt to figure out what its own future looks like by experimenting with a combination of the regular television model and something more like what Netflix or Amazon does. And the show's content — which involves cops in late 1960s Los Angeles and the serial killer Charles Manson — is darker than your typical network fare, more like a cable show.
Aquarius, then, tries to occupy broadcast, cable, and streaming — all three regions of the current television landscape. That it's an uneasy fit in any one of these regions and that it sometimes feels like two shows clumsily stitched together should probably come as no surprise.
The two shows within Aquarius
A good portion of Aquarius, of which I've seen the entire season, is a '60s-set cop show, complete with cases of the week and the characters facing off with the important social issues of the day. At the center of that show is Sam Hodiak, played by David Duchovny, who seems like a rough spin on Dragnet's ultra-square Joe Friday, if Joe Friday were slightly more sympathetic to hippies.
The Miranda ruling is new, and Hodiak can never remember to read suspects their rights. He's occasionally, casually racist. And he believes in good old-fashioned America. But he's also coming to realize not everything he holds dear is as infallible as he might want it to be.
In some ways, Hodiak is meant to exemplify some of the wider societal shifts of his era, when the counterculture's dissatisfaction with the status quo began filtering up to the mainstream. Hodiak's son goes AWOL from Vietnam, and the season's most satisfying storyline involves how the character (a World War II veteran) slowly reconciles himself with why his son left the war.
Similarly, Hodiak gets paired with a younger, more freewheeling partner, played by Grey Damon, and he spends a fair amount of time with one of the precinct's few women, played by Claire Holt. At first, this seems like it will be filled with scenes where he clashes with the youngsters, but instead the characters all quickly form a working bond.
As cop shows go, this isn't radically amazing stuff, but it can be quite a bit of fun. The series never figures out what to do with Holt's character, and its cases of the week rarely rise above average. But Duchovny is quite good in the lead, and in some of the season's later hours, it has a nicely lived-in feeling, especially as the show starts to fill in the characters and world around the precinct.
The problem is that all of this is smashed up against a show about and set among the followers of Charles Manson, and that show never once matches up all that well with the '60s cop show that dominates most of the series. The writers, who include Rafael Yglesias, father of Vox's own Matthew Yglesias, try to build thematic parallels between the rise of Manson and the decay of Hodiak's Los Angeles, but they simply don't have enough time to make either fully pay off.
The show kicks off because Hodiak is investigating the disappearance of the daughter of an old flame, and she turns out to be with Manson's budding Family. But it's also 1967, and the crimes for which Manson became known are still in the future. As such, the Manson stuff always feels like a weird, gratuitous add-on.
The series is being sold as a "limited" one, which implies that perhaps Hodiak and Manson will finally face off in the season's latter hours, and Hodiak (if he returns) will face off with more famous serial killers, like a true-crime Forrest Gump. But the longer the season goes on, the more the two shows seem to completely and totally diverge from each other.
And that ultimately does in the show. But it also says a lot about how TV is made today.
Everything needs a way to be sold
It's hard to get a series on the air nowadays without a ready-made hook that gives the promotional department something big and exciting to sell. In the case of Aquarius, that's obviously the idea of Duchovny, still famous from his days on X-Files and Californication, hunting down Manson. But the series' heart is never in this plot, and it seems far more interested in the workplace drama aspects of the cop show that occupies much of its running time.
That cop show might be standard issue, but it fits well within the world of the series' creator, John McNamara. One of those "great showrunners who never found the right show" types, McNamara has bounced around the medium for two decades now, waiting for just the right thing to break out. His one-season wonders include genuinely entertaining and daring TV shows (like the dark soap Profit) and really well-executed versions of standard TV templates (like the glossy private eye series Eyes). But what he loves above all else are hard-boiled dialogue and tough guy types.
To that end, Hodiak is perhaps the quintessential McNamara hero, all cool bon mots and snide comments. It's fairly easy to imagine a version of this show centered solely on this character that works really well, especially as the show broadens to include the sweeping societal changes going on around a man who'd rather be the rock those changes sweep around.
But the Manson material is always there, and it weakens the whole show. The '60s cop show stuff ends up cutting corners because it needs to make room for more Manson time, and the portrayal of the Family's early days never feels like it's being taken seriously (particularly when people keep calling the serial killer "Charlie Manson"). Maybe there was a way to make that material play, too, but it almost would have had to be on a show just about the Manson Family, which would have been a grim watch indeed.
So instead, there's a show that's half there and half not, and that's somehow more disappointing than anything else. The sad thing about Aquarius is that it would be a really solid TV show if it didn't have to squeeze one of the most famous serial killers ever into its confines — but there's also almost assuredly no way it would have gotten on the air without said killer.
Aquarius airs Thursdays at 9 pm Eastern on NBC. You can stream the entire first season at NBC.com.