June 17, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere: “Aquarius”


AQUARIUS:  Thursday 10PM on NBC

Of all the puzzling decisions broadcast networks have made in these waning years of their reign, none may top NBC’s utterly inexplicable renewal of its 1960s cop saga/Charles Manson history lesson AQUARIUS, a series with ratings so woeful that it was exiled to summer Saturday nights in its first season–and failed even there.  It’s hard to imagine any financial scenario where the network breaks even on the license fee it pays for Aquarius, and yet here it is back with us.  Once again, it arrives with a gimmick:  in 2015, all the season’s episodes were streamed to allow for binge-viewing, and tonight it aired as a “commercial free” 2-hour block (in fact, there was a break a bit after 10:30PM), which translated into the first 3 episodes of the season airing, in slightly shortened versions than usual, one after the other.

Perhaps even stranger:  despite the total failure of Season 1, and apart from a few brief flash-forwards to the Tate-LaBianca murders that were meant to be attention-getting, series creator John McNamara made almost no changes at all to Aquarius for Season 2, a decision which we have to assume was just fine with NBC.  (McNamara wrote the first two sections of the night’s trio, which were directed by Jonas Pate, with episode 3 written by Executive Producer Alexandra Cunningham and directed by Timothy Busfield.)  The series again balanced the story of cynical, flawed yet supremely effective LAPD Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) with the gradual progress of Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) and his “family” of sycophants and pathetic young women toward their violent destiny, with a procedural element mixed in.

Originally, the two central stories were somewhat connected, because Hodiak had been asked by his ex Grace (Michaela McManus) to find her missing daughter Emma (Emma Dumont), who was living with the Manson group.  But Hodiak’s discovery of that fact, and the decision to let Emma stay where she was, happened in Season 1, so the pieces are mostly separate now, with the only real link Manson’s involvement with a drug ring that Hodiak’s protege Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) was trying to infiltrate, and even that seems to be over, as the drug people were slaughtered in the premiere.  It all left Aquarius even less compelling than it was before.

The opening triple-feature also cut down on Season 1’s main subplots, with the efforts of Officer Charmain Tully (Claire Holt) to break the LAPD’s 1960s glass ceiling through undercover work for Hodiak, and the violently soapy story of Emma’s secretly bisexual, politically connected father Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne) allowed to drift away.  Instead, the episodes featured a dull serial killer story that Dick Wolf would have rejected from one of his Chicago series, a lengthy subplot about a former fellow prison inmate who forced his company on Manson until Charlie had his girls eliminate the man and his crew, and worst of all, Hodiak’s doomed and dull romance with Grace.

The drama was lessened, but the mannerisms of Aquarius returned in full force.  The show’s pace its ponderous, its visual style features heavy use of hazy filters that may be meant to indicate LA smog, but instead suggest apocalyptic climate change, and the background score drones to signal unending dread.  Duchovny is the only member of the cast allowed to score any conversational points, while Anthony is perpetually wild-eyed.  Occasional nods toward social commentary about the 1960s are half-hearted at best.

Perhaps the only intriguing aspect of Aquarius is the one that surrounds it as a series:  given its previous performance, and the apparent fact that NBC and the producers believed it needed no changes at all for Season 2, what exactly would it have to do in order to be canceled?  Or will it remain on NBC’s air for as long as the Robert Greenblatt adminstration controls the network’s schedule, a monument to sheer stubbornness?  The network seems to be under its own Manson’s thrall as self-destructively as the man’s own adherents were.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."