Review: Aquarius (Season 1, Episode 1)

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It's officially the dawning of the age of Aquarius, with a fantastic first insight into the Summer of Love and the infamous Charles Manson.

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The TV landscape has changed drastically in today’s society, with a lot of shows that you’d think would belong on cable making their way to network TV. NBC chanced this with Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, a show renowned for it’s violent tendencies and visual style, which proved to be extremely successful (even though it was recently canceled). This in part lead to the creation of Aquarius. When NBC picked up the show, executives told creator John McNamara and producer Marty Adelstein to ‘make a cable show’, which they have certainly managed to pull off.

Aquarius takes us back to the mid to late 1960s, right in the midst of the hippie reign and the Summer of Love. The show takes on the lowly beginnings of the now widely known criminal Charles Manson, blending fact with fiction to portray the run up to the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders in 1971. The fiction in Aquarius’ case begins with the catalyst of the disappearance of Emma Karn (Emma Dumont). LAPD Hollywood Division Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) receives a call from his ex-girlfriend Grace (Michela McManus), Emma’s mother. Frightened for the wellbeing of her daughter, Grace asks Hodiak to track her down and bring her home.

Emma has been missing for four days after sneaking out of the house to a party up in the hills, a party at the Manson commune. Or otherwise known as the Spiral Staircase. Grace’s attorney husband and Emma’s father Ken could be less worried, however, as his daughter’s disappearance really hampers on his reputation and political campaign. Hodiak enlists the help of young narc detective Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to go undercover as a hippie to infiltrate the Manson commune to find Emma.

For the first episode of a new series, you’d expect a monotonous hour of exposition. Setting the scene, introducing characters and their motivations, and the story in general. What Aquarius manages to do is introduce each setting and character in less than five minutes each. Whether it’s from the rebellious yet innocent introduction of Emma, or the eerie atmosphere surrounding the first glimpse of Charles Manson and his ‘family’.

It’s with Hodiak where this is extremely impressive, as with just a few minutes worth of sweeping camera work in his apartment, you see him boxing, loading a gun, his police badge and a photograph of him and his son, and then see him losing his keys and having to resort to hot wiring his car. All of this with an overlay of his conversation to Grace on the phone about the disappearance of Emma.

It leaves the rest of the episode to explore the trials and tribulations of the 60s. It wasn’t just Manson that brought the end to the era, with the opening episode having a backdrop of the Sunset Strip curfew riots in the beginning of 1966, which continued on and off into the early 1970s.

This is also helped along by the plethora of music surrounding the episode. The episodes title ‘Everybody Gets Burned’ is a reference to The Byrds track, with it also opening the episode. It’s used more as a tool of narration than anything else. It works extremely well in this environment, as the 60s is known for it’s explosive music scene through bands like The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. Along with festivals such as Altamont and Woodstock. The music combined with the set design, yellow haze and costume design makes the transition from 2015 to 1967 instantaneous.

Aquarius seems to run off of four main storylines – a ‘case of the week’, Hodiak’s investigation into Emma’s disappearance, Shafe’s undercover drug ring investigation and the Manson commune itself. The opening episode focuses on the latter three, as the ‘case of the week’ doesn’t really come into play until the second episode.

Aquarius marks David Duchovny’s return to network TV, and he doesn’t disappoint. His ability to combine wit with a straight-edge delivery lends itself to the hard-hitting World War II veteran Hodiak. Grey Damon’s portrayal of Shafe is equally as admirable, especially through his and Duchovny’s chemistry, making scenes in which the newly formed duo are together extremely entertaining and somewhat hard-hitting.

It’s this that helps encapsulate the generation gap between Hodiak and Shafe, and accentuates Hodiak’s feeling of distance towards the baby-boomer generation of the time. He’s a noir cop working in the swinging sixties, and has no idea how to react to it. He’s extremely out of touch with the current generation.

Gethin Anthony’s portrayal as Charles Manson isn’t as memorable as it could have been. Manson isn’t meant to be likable or bearable in the slightest, but at points he doesn’t seem to be believable at all. You could say that at timesĀ it’s more of a caricature of Manson than anything else, especially since he is too clean-cut and TV ready for living out of a so-called hippie commune.

Even with this sometimes off-performance, ‘Everybody Gets Burned’ is a fantastic opening to the series. The show manages to envelop you in its tone and subject matter straight off the bat and leaves you wanting more. Which is useful, as it ends on a cliffhanger insinuating that Emma’s attorney father is actually involved with Manson, leading to the assumption that Manson has manipulated Emma into staying at the commune to get something that he wants from Ken.

Aquarius airs on Sky Atlantic on Tuesdays at 9pm.

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A film student stuck in a 90s timewarp of FBI agents, UFOs, conspiracy theories, alternative rock and grunge.

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