Although infamous cult leader Charles Manson initiates the events of the new historical fiction series Aquarius, he at times is almost relegated to the background in the midst of other cases and events, though you can always sense his lurking presence as the Summer of Love begins its descent into the darkness that ended the 1960s.
“[Manson]’s sort of this symbol, more or less, of the change that was happening,” says costar Grey Damon, who plays young undercover cop Brian Shafe. Shafe is teamed with veteran homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, who also is an executive producer) to find 16-year-old Emma (Emma Dumont), the daughter of Hodiak’s old girlfriend. It turns out Emma has run off with the group of drifters following Manson.
“The show is about the ’60s,” continues Damon. “The show is about this shift, hence the name Aquarius. It’s about all of that; it’s not just about Manson, it’s not just about cops.”
So don’t look to Aquarius as necessarily a historically accurate presentation of the search for Manson (played here by Gethin Anthony, who captures the dangerous charisma of the man well). He is more of a springboard into an overall exploration of the late ’60s. Indeed, the series — set in 1967 Los Angeles, before Manson was widely known as the threat he became following the Tate-Labianca murders in 1969 — delves into other hot-button topics of the time, from the Vietnam War to race relations. In the midst of their investigation into Emma’s disappearance, which eventually leads them to the name Manson, the two also are detoured by other cases, from drug dealers to a man who murdered his wife. It’s a new world in particular for the older Hodiak, who teams with Shafe when his own efforts to investigate the new counter-culture are met with resistance and silence from the youngsters.
While the policing techniques of the time are certainly different from today (the cops are seen trying to remember to read suspects the recently instituted Miranda Rights, for example), and Damon says his character is more by the book than Duchovny’s, Damon also says that the main difference between Shafe and Hodiak is as people.
“Where we really clash more is our environment,” he says.
In order to play Shafe, and to better understand the young man’s environment, Damon (who was born in 1987) says he not only did a lot of reading about the time (“John McNamara, our producer, supplied us with a whole bunch of books and movies to look at,” Damon says), but also listened to bands of the era.
“I played the music on blast constantly,” he says, “while I was driving, or working out, really trying to get a vibe for it all. Anything ’60s I could get my hands on, I just tried to immerse myself in the world as best I could. I fell in love with Otis Redding.”
The series itself is filled with that music, adding to the re-creation of the era.
Even after all of his research, Damon says he still feels like he is learning about that time, through the filming of the first season and even after.
“But that’s okay,” he says, “because the ’60s is a very interesting era. I’m quite all right with it.”
Aquarius airs Thursdays at 9pm ET on NBC, beginning with a two-hour premiere May 28.
Grey Damon and David Duchovny in “Aquarius”: Vivian Zink/NBC