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'Aquarius' and TV's Helter Skelter View of the '60s
June 4, 2015  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment
 

For a moment there, toward the end of Mad Men, there was a rumor that would-be starlet Megan Draper would meet her end as a victim of the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders.

It would be the final stroke of irony — or so the reasoning went — that would send Don Draper into a final funk of fury and self-realization.

As we now know — thankfully — Matthew Weiner chose a more uplifting way to end one of TV’s most enigmatic, details-obsessed dramas. Mad Men ended on a grace note, with one of the most iconic TV images to survive the ‘60s, an image that both reflected the changin’ times and neatly summed up Draper’s chosen calling.

Primetime TV’s ongoing fascination with the ‘60s continues, though, to mixed effect. Aquarius, an Altmanesque look at Charles Manson (played by Gethin Anthony, left, Game of Thrones) from the perspective of an ensemble of acolytes, misfits and hangers-on, takes its name from a Billboard chart-topping song in the 1967 musical Hair, a two-song medley with Let the Sunshine In, as originally popularized by The 5th Dimension.

There’s not much sunshine in Aquarius, though. It’s darkness all the way, even as NBC’s TV promos herald it with the starry-eyed heading, “A new generation in a new time.”

The year is 1967 — the Tate-LaBianca murders wouldn’t happen until August 1969, just three weeks after the Apollo 11 moon landing — and TV is dominated on the one hand by TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza and by oddly endearing, pop-cultch hits like American Bandstand, I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees and My Three Sons on the other. TV was important then. It was the year the inaugural Super Bowl was simulcast on NBC and CBS — in an era of just three major networks.

Like the quickly forgotten Pan Am before it, and presumably the ‘60s-centric The Astronaut Wives Club — due June 18, on ABC — after it, Aquarius aims to recreate the times with a mix of bright, saturated colors and a song chart from the ‘60s.

Early reviews have varied, with the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley and Washington Post’s Hank Stuever weighing in on the high end, and The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman and Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan on the low. Eric Gould, of this parish, found Aquarius to be wanting, the latest example of the broadcast networks' penchant for summer retreads, complete with ready-mix reveals before the commercial break and tried-and-true dialogue to be listened to while folding the laundry — the summer TV equivalent of a Vietnam-era MRE. Bon appétit.

Aquarius suffers in part from over-familiarity with past TV versions of the Manson story, including not one but two adaptations of prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 book Helter Skelter. The first, in 1976, starred Steve Railsback (a character actor said to be known for his menacing stare) as an edgy, increasingly unbalanced Manson (left); a four-minute monologue of Railsback-as-Manson survives to this day on YouTube The second, in 2004, featured Jeremy Davies (Daniel Faraday from Lost) in a subtle, more unsettling performance that reflected the changing sensibility of TV in the early to mid 2000s. Watching the two Helter Skelters back-to-back provides an uncanny illustration of how TV in the ‘70s differed from TV today.

Some things don’t change, however, which is where clichés find fertile breeding ground. Aquarius’ predictable reliance on familiar anthems from the ‘60s prompted a flurry of Twitter comments about ’60s music clichés, though with oft-cited standbys like White Rabbit, Paint It Black, I Can See for Miles and Everybody’s Been Burned held up as examples of failure of imagination. (Say what you will about Mad Men, even its most vocal dissenters can’t fault Weiner and his music supervisors for their savvy song choice.)

Familiar songs are a shorthand way of introducing a present-day audience to a story set in a specific past. The Buffalo Springfield anthem For What It’s Worth has become inextricably linked with movies set in the ‘60s, from Coming Home to Forrest Gump — so much so its overuse was parodied in Ben Stiller’s intentionally silly 2008 epic Tropic Thunder.

Who knows how Millennials perceive the ‘60s, to the extent that Millennials think of the ’60s at all? To aging Boomers, though, those three weeks in 1969 represented everything that was both right and wrong about the promise of the ‘60s: the Apollo moon landing and Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” juxtaposed against the terror and carnage of the Manson murders.

David Duchovny (right), who plays Aquarius’ point-of-view character, old school Los Angeles police detective Sam Hodiak, would have been eight-years-old at the time of the Manson murders. He’s an actor, playing a part from a time he can barely remember. For many alive today, though, those fateful days are as fresh in the memory as if they happened yesterday.

Aquarius is structured in these early episodes as a missing-persons case. A privileged, white-bread young woman, the daughter of a wealthy, influential lawyer living high in the Hollywood Hills, has disappeared from her parents’ home and has shacked up with the Manson family at the soon-to-be notorious Spahn Ranch — a faded, abandoned movie set where westerns like Duel in the Sun and TV episodes of Bonanza and The Lone Ranger were filmed in an earlier time.

Hodiak, played by Duchovny as a rules-breakin’, head-bustin’ good ole boy, partnered with a younger outwardly skeezy, inwardly moral undercover cop played by Grey Damon, is on the trail of the missing girl, a trail we know will eventually lead to Manson and his coven of loser witches.

A friend who was just 13 at the time of the Manson murders tells me his wife enjoyed Aquarius’ opening episodes, but that he himself found it hard to watch, remembering the visceral, grisly details of the times. His wife will watch it to its conclusion; he, on the other hand, has already bailed.

“It’s strange what some people view as entertainment,” he told me.

Mad Men never had that problem.

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Kevin
Via DVR, I watched the first 3 hours. Started hour 4 and at the 10 minute mark, I got interrupted, returned 30 mins later, and just deleted it. Lost interest. Unsure what was so uninteresting. Not enough there to keep me involved.
Jun 8, 2015   |  Reply
 
 
 
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