The Roush Review: Aquarius Is a Sinister, Satisfying Look at the Dark Side of the ’60s

Vivian Zink/NBC

Here’s the 1960s as you rarely saw them on Mad Men: gritty and seductively dangerous, depicting a paradise and generation lost and awash in social and political revolution. As a drug-fueled counterculture clashes with an ethically and morally compromised L.A. police force in NBC’s provocative 13-episode Aquarius, good luck finding a Joe Friday (whose classic and square-by-comparison Dragnet was revived in 1967, the same year Aquarius‘s first season unfolds).

David Duchovny, a sardonic treat as pugnacious detective Sam Hodiak, sports a crew cut that would make Jack Webb proud, but his behavior is right out of Joseph Wambaugh, with adultery, alcoholism, and an aversion to due process among his Achilles’ heels. (Let’s just say he’s not quite on a first-name basis yet with Miranda—as in the “Miranda warning.”)

This gruff World War II vet is frequently heard to grumble “for Pete’s sake” whenever confronted with tangible signs of how times have changed, so imagine his reaction when he’s paired with idealistic long-haired undercover cop Brian Shafe (an appealing Grey Damon) to root out a new breed of bad guys.

Which brings us to Aquarius‘s irresistibly intriguing hook. When they’re assigned to track down the runaway daughter of a politically connected lawyer (Brian F. O’Byrne), the search takes them into an underbelly of sex and drug hangouts frequented by a hedonistic sociopathic of a petty criminal we now know to be Charles Manson (an electrifying Gethin Anthony). This is two years before his infamous “Helter Skelter” murder spree, but already Manson’s sinister harum of nubile groupies is spouting the Gospel According to Charlie: “Someday he’s gonna be more famous than the Beatles, and we’re going to help him get there.”

Aquarius is at its best when infiltrating Manson’s “family” of stoned sexual sycophants, who feed their unstable leader’s God complex while embarking on an escalating path of crime. When the show tries to weave in social commentary about sexism (with Claire Holt as a patronized young police officer) and racism (Gaius Charles as an especially preachy Black Panther), the storytelling feels more clumsily obvious and trite, hewing too closely to episodic network conventions despite its unorthodox framework. (I often found myself imagining if this had been produced for FX or AMC.)

But because NBC is taking the unusual approach of making the first full season available for binge-watching (for a four-week window), I took the entire 13-hour deep dive, and emerged entertained, unsettled, and wanting more. Those are just the facts, man.

Aquarius premieres Thursday, May 28, 9/8c, NBC