Mad Men fans are still debating whether its ending was cynical, heartfelt or both. But having seven seasons to quibble over the fine points of a subtle, unpredictable story about a decade of life was a luxury that became more obvious every time a broadcast network set a period drama in the 1960s (see Pan Am and The Playboy Club in 2011). As if on cue, here comes NBC’s 1967-vintage serial Aquarius (premieres May 28) to remind us how grateful we should have been.
To be fair, Aquarius, a crime thriller about the beginnings of a case that will eventually lead to the Manson Family murders, is hardly trying to be Mad Men. But it does, like AMC’s drama, try to make the 1960s a character in the story. This time, they went straight to central casting.
It’s not two minutes into the pilot that hippies are tripping at a party to the sounds of “White Rabbit.” The old folks are struggling to understand the young folks. People are arguing about Vietnam. The Establishment is under siege; kids are talking back; and the fuzz have to read this new-fangled Miranda-rights thingie when they arrest people. Aquarius is not so much trying to present an idea of the 1960s as to lay out a set of signifiers we’ve wearily agreed to accept as representing “the 1960s” on screen.
All that thrift-shop decor, though, mainly dresses up an extended, network-noir cop procedural. David Duchovny, wearing a version of Jack Webb’s Dragnet ‘67 flattop, stars as Sam Hodiak, a by-the-numbers, Greatest Generation detective. He’s assigned to the disappearance of Emma (Emma Dumont), the daughter of a politically connected attorney, who has fallen into the orbit of a charismatic, dangerous would-be rock star by the name of Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony, Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon). The better to infiltrate their counterculture targets, Hodiak is paired with a longhaired partner, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon).
Hodiak is not entirely the square he seems at first (he’s the son of a jazz musician, we learn, and thus has some experience in the ways of wacky weed) and Duchovny’s laconic humor is the show’s main attraction. (The sleazy Californication could not render Duchovny unenjoyable, and maybe this proves nothing can.) But most everything else is quite exactly as you’d expect: the odd-couple sparks between Hodiak and Shafe, the snaky preening of Anthony’s budding cult leader, the vibrations of Los Angeles in the Summer of Love. (In the third episode, a hippie chick weaving flower crowns gushes about recently having lived up in San Francisco, in “the heart of Ashbury,” down the street from “Janis.” “Joplin?” Emma asks her, to spare you a visit to Wikipedia.)
Sheerly as a crime story, Aquarius goes down easy enough, but it lacks particularly fresh ideas either on its setting or its genre and–since you have some idea where this is headed if the name “Charles Manson” means anything to you–it lacks much suspense, at least at first. Though it has aspirations to be a dark cable-style serial, it’s a cop procedural at heart, and it soon begins mixing in kind of case-of-the-week stories, as if to hedge its bet that Manson alone can hold viewers’ interest. The most interesting aspect of the Manson story, early on, is Aquarius’ focus on his musical aspirations to become “bigger than the Beatles.” (Several of the season’s episodes take their titles from his original songs.) And the hippie-underworld scenes are distractingly corny–all smoke and no buzz.
One caveat: NBC sent critics the entire 13-episode season. I can only tell you about Aquarius up to the point I gave up on it, four episodes in. (That may not be fair–with 352 scripted shows airing a year, you gotta do triage–but it’s also three and a half episodes more than I would have watched if I weren’t reviewing it.)
Maybe it gets much better after that, and you can find out quickly: in a very 2015 twist, NBC is making the whole series available in streaming and on-demand the day after the pilot airs. (It will still, however, air weekly, for those of you who prefer to consume your TV 1967-style.)
Which brings us back to Mad Men, whose creator Matt Weiner recently said that, if he ever made a show for Netflix, he’d like it to air weekly, to give viewers time to digest. That’s not a problem for Aquarius. The few seconds it takes for the next episode to load should be more than enough time to process the last one.