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Stay Tuned: 'Aquarius' tells Manson story with mixed results

 
Melissa Crawley
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Posted on 6/22/2015, 9:45 AM

"Aquarius" is the story of two detectives whose search for a teenage girl in 1967 leads them to Charles Manson. It's historical fiction so elements of truth and drama are mixed. Unfortunately, the result is also mixed. Part serialized story, part procedural, the representation of sixties counterculture feels very paint by the numbers while the depiction of Manson (Gethin Anthony) is missing an important element. It does however, offer an interesting take on race relations.

The '60s are seen through the eyes of Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), who rejects many of the social and cultural transformations taking place. He's meant to be a conservative, old-school kind of cop, but Duchovny is a cool guy, even with a flat top haircut and a bad suit, so it's hard to buy the character's persona. Hodiak is paired with younger partner, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), the anti-cop to his "In my day…" version. Unsurprisingly, their interactions are mostly about generational differences. This allows Duchovny to be funny and he has some good one-liners but otherwise the pairing is too typical.

The Manson storyline focuses on 16-year-old Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), who Manson targets to join his dark family. She slips much too easily under his spell, particularly since Manson's version of enthralling depends on lines like these: Looking down onto a LA freeway at night, he compares its twisted length to a snake and says to her: "The snake eats the world. We eat the snake." Later, he tells her he "pulled her out of the womb of ignorance into the new." In an orgy scene, he reassures her: "I love them. You love me. They love you." In episode two, Emma informs him there is no food in the house. His response: "I know your hunger is real. So is mine. But you know what's bigger than that? Your power."

Manson's power is persuading troubled women to join him and eventually commit a horrific crime but the story leaves it to other characters to vaguely convey his charms. We hear that "Charlie gets the girls" and "He's got a quality." How he achieves this and what that quality is remains buried under bad dialogue.

What the show does better is look at racial dynamics in the form of Hodiak and a character named Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter (Gaius Charles). Based on a real man, Carter is a member of the Nation of Islam who becomes a Black Panther. In the dramatized version of Carter's story, Hodiak abuses his power as a police officer and his choice puts Carter on the road to radicalization. It's a storyline that speaks to contemporary race relations.

While I appreciate that "Aquarius" is trying to find a new way into telling Manson's story, it's not entirely successful. I find his lines silly but they do portray his weird mental state. What's missing is a more complex depiction of the appeal that he must have had to create an army of women willing to commit a crime that remains just as shocking today as it was four decades ago.

All episodes of "Aquarius" are currently available on NBC.com.

Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.