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NBC’s ‘Aquarius’: Making Hash out of Helter Skelter
May 27, 2015  | By Eric Gould

Just when you thought the networks were capable of serving up riveting, appointment viewing with the likes of ABC’s just-finished American Crime, the tried-and-true dramatic formulas return to remind us where the money is, and where the networks' hearts really are.

NBC’s Aquarius, in a two-hour premiere Thursday night at 9 p.m., ET, is the latest example of a retread recipe  – forgettable fictional characters wrapped up in an historical event, dialogue meant for those listening while folding laundry, and ready-mix reveals before commercial breaks. Stir, repeat, voilà – summer network series.

And if hitting all the right middle notes isn’t enough, Aquarius, steeped in '60s costumes and flower power, presumes that if we loved Mad Men, then we will surely go for similar period styling, but this time with a plot centered around psychopathic puppet master Charles Manson as the lead character.

Mad Men was a journey of novel-deep characters who, within their own stories, reacted to historical events around them, and yes, enjoyed romping through the visual spirit of their times. Aquarius (at least in the two premiere episodes reviewed here) gets that exactly backwards, with lots of bell-bottoms, doobies and trippy hits of the '60s but little else — and certainly without cultural insight or a story to care about, which made Matthew Weiner’s series a must-see each season.

Aquarius, while sometimes pretty to look at, is all glitz, no substance and has characters describing events and spelling it all out for us. The tepid plot follows a world-weary detective (a game David Duchovny, top, sporting his best Joe Friday brush cut) trying to find and rescue the daughter of an old girlfriend conscripted into the Manson Family. Manson (Gethin Anthony) is upfront in the story of the girl’s flight from her somewhat dysfunctional home as is Manson’s fictionally imagined (and preposterous) involvement with players at the highest level of Los Angeles power and politics.

Never mind that the best Manson ever achieved was sponging off late Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson for a short stint, and also gaining mild interest from a few second-tier Los Angeles record producers. Otherwise, he was a career thief, con man, and pimp. Here, he’s a Batman-level arch-enemy, extorting the well-heeled lawyer who is also the runaway's father, out-foxing the police — and most laughably — pimping out his young prostitutes to cops and upper tier goons on the mayor’s staff.

Duchovny’s LA detective Sam Hodiak impassively winds his way though a menagerie of cardboard thin characters — hippies, bikers, corrupt politicians — while on the hunt for the sixteen year-old gone girl Emma (Emma Dumont, right, as a waifish, “Squeaky” Fromme doppelgänger) who joins the Manson Family because Daddy is too strict about curfew.

Manson is an unsettling, regrettable figure and an unfortunate choice for a dramatic series. He was (and likely remains, still incarcerated, now 80) a shaggy, beady-eyed psychopath who spoke in riddles in order to manipulate the susceptible to do his bidding. He got his dim-witted minions to stage murders with clues left behind in order to ignite the cockeyed apocalyptic race war he envisioned — the “Helter Skelter” phrase he stole from The Beatles — upending a society he felt had it coming.

The Manson depiction in Aquarius is reverse, with Anthony’s television pretty looks (below) about as menacing as a scheming real estate broker on The Young and the Restless, sleepwalking through a bunch of watered-down crypto-monologues to go along.

The late Tom Snyder and Charlie Rose each interviewed Manson on camera back in the '80s, and he freely espoused his delusional nonsense during both interviews.

It doesn’t seem like a Hollywood dramatization can add anything more powerful to those works, especially one that veers so laughably off the record. 

Isn’t the real thing chilling enough?

In the spirit of our times, like Netflix and Amazon, NBC is putting the entire 13-episode run of Aquarius online after Thursday’s premiere, so if you have the interest, you’ll be able to binge watch the whole thing. 

Presumably, the script featuring the travails and exploits of Charles Whitman, the sniper who mass murdered 16 people in 1966 from a University of Texas bell tower, wasn’t ready yet.

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