Aquarius two-hour premiere: Summer of Love begins to get dark

Jeff Pfeiffer

While interesting, NBC’s new drama Aquarius doesn’t exactly break new ground. In fact, the only original thing about it might be its distribution plan. Following last night’s two-hour premiere, all 13 episodes of the show are now available for binge-watching at NBC.com and other VOD platforms.

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“With Aquarius we have the opportunity to push some new boundaries to give our audience something no broadcast network has done before,” said NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt. “We are fully aware how audiences want to consume multiple episodes of new television series faster and at their own discretion, and we’re excited to offer our viewers this same experience since all 13 episodes of this unique show have been produced and are ready to be seen. I appreciate the enthusiasm we’ve gotten from the producers of the show and our partner Marty Adelstein of Tomorrow Studios to launch this series in a new, forward-thinking way.”

Supposedly, these distribution plan will result in limited interruption of the show, both on-air and off, because a point in the arrangement is that the show will be available to only a handful of certain advertising partners. Therefore, the linear broadcast on NBC (which will continue Thursdays at 9pm ET) will mirror the commercial load on the VOD platforms.

All 13 episodes of Aquarius will remain on the digital platforms for a four-week period, with each new episode continuing to premiere on NBC each Thursday.

While Aquarius may be breaking new ground for a broadcast network program in its distribution, how successful it is obviously depends on the reception it gets from its audience. And, again, aside from its 1960s setting, it’s a fairly standard police drama.

And even its ’60s time period isn’t unique. We obviously just said goodbye to Mad Men, which spent the brunt of its time spanning that decade extremely well. Coming up on ABC is The Astronauts Wives Club, set amid the 1960s space race, so Aquarius won’t be alone.

But Aquarius focuses on some of the darker elements of the decade, as seen in the two-hour premiere. It looks like it’s going to take a look at the how the idealistic Summer of Live gradually tailspinned into a cynical end to the ’60s, as Vietnam heated up, race riots and assassinations marred the landscape, and Charles Manson and his cult of followers committed brutal murders.

Manson (played in Aquarius by Gethin Anthony) is an instigating factor in the series. Sixteen-year-old Emma Karn (Emma Dumont) sneaks out of her house with her boyfriend one night to attend a party. While her boyfriend is otherwise involved (with a female associate of Manson’s who is purposely distracting him), Manson uses the charm he apparently had to convince Emma to join his group of followers, primarily young women.

The series begins in 1967, two years before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family. So Manson is not yet a household  name, although he does have a long rap sheet already. The series, which describes itself as “historical fiction,” uses this to its advantage, to sort of fill in what might have happened in that time while not necessarily giving us a strictly factual account. Perhaps its plan is to eventually lead up to the murders, if the show lasts long enough.

That also gives the show the chance to explore the era through fictional characters, including Det. Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, also an executive producer). Hodiak is called upon by Emma’s mother, Grace (Michaela McManus) — who happens to be Hodiak’s old girlfriend — to find her daughter. There’s obviously still a connection between Hodiak and Grace, which seems to intensify with each meeting.

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After talking to Emma’s boyfriend, Hodiak visits the place where she attended the party, but gets nowhere with the hippies who distrust the police, and basically taunt him into assaulting them. Hodiak knows he, a middle-aged cop, will get nowhere with these kids, but he comes across an answer when he sees young undercover cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) at headquarters. Shafe has just been outed by his snitch source during a drug investigation, and rather than being put back into the fold of ordinary officers, Hodiak suggests to his superiors that Shafe assist him in the search for Emma. With his youth, long hair and style of dress, he could gain entry into the counter-culture that Hodiak can’t.

RELATED: INTERVIEW WITH GREY DAMON OF “AQUARIUS”

The two eventually find a trail to Manson, and even more shockingly, learn that Emma’s father, Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne) is Manson’s lawyer. It’s stated that Manson’s dream is to be a music star “bigger than the Beatles,” and he clearly thinks Ken is his entry into the business. That is likely why he was drawn to Emma (whom he eventually dubs “Cherry Pie”) — for leverage, as opposed to whatever metaphysical things he may to turn her head.

In one frightening scene, after Ken has been ignoring his calls to the office, Manson confronts Ken in a parking garage and implies that the two had a sexual relationship in the past. Manson is about to pick things up again, appearing to want to rape Ken, but they are interrupted, and Manson settles for giving Ken a cut on the neck as a message.

That’s not the only bit of violence we see from Manson. At one point, he has Emma shoplift a dress, but when Emma is nabbed by the storeowner, Manson enters, tells Emma to leave, and turns up the radio to conceal the screams of his victim as he takes out a knife (a chilling use of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”). Manson cuts the man’s eyes, and leaves him bound, and bleeding.

Eventually, Ken helps Manson get in to see a music exec, who thinks Charlie should make a demo tape. That would cost $2,000, though, so Manson again visits Ken to shake him down for some money.

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While the search for Emma and Manson is an undercurrent through the show, the second hour last night showed that the series will also likely delve into other, more standard procedural melodramas, set against the backdrop of the era. Hodiak and Shafe investigate the murder of a woman, and while the husband might be the prime suspect, Hodiak actually ends up arresting a Nation of Islam member who was interfering with the investigation while protesting the lack of policing in the predominantly black neighborhood, ultimately as a trap to get the husband to confess. The character of Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles) allows the show to get into the racial tensions and unequal policing of the time (and probably still rings true to many today). When Carter is finally released, it’s implied that he’ll be back and trying to shut down Hodiak and other injustices in the justice system.

Shafe takes exception to Hodiak’s handling of the situation, and we learn why when he asks  Hodiak to drive him home. There, Hodiak is somewhat taken aback by the fact that Shafe is married to a black woman, Kristin (Milauna Jackson), and they have a child. Hodiak registers understanding of where Shafe is coming from, and the two agree to continue the hunt for Manson as a team.

The other hot-button topic of the era, the Vietnam War, is touched on through snippets of news and TV reports we periodically see and hear, usually through Hodiak’s perspective. He seems to have particular interest in it, and we find out why when his solider son Walt (Chris Sheffield) returns  home, to his father’s surprise. It eventually turns out that Hodiak’s ex-wife lied and said she was sick or dying so the military would allow her son to come stateside. After learning this, Hodiak is unable to find his son, so that will likely be another thread to unravel as the series progresses.

As last night’s premiere ended, Ken went to visit Manson with half of the money he needs for his demo. Manson again reminds Ken of the time they spent together in the past, and the two share a kiss that Ken seems to be unable to avoid, even as he seems horrified at what he is doing. Suddenly, Emma knocks on Charlie’s door, and Ken is even more  horrified. Manson tells her to leave, and she does, leaving Ken alone under Manson’s hypnotic presence as we fade out.

How We Knew We Were In The ’60s

While I admired the “California noir” look and feel Aquarius is going for, I sometimes found it hard to believe I was in the 1960s, despite the clothes, the ever-present music of the time, slang like “dig” and “man,” and the elements like Manson, Vietnam, etc. It somehow felt a little too slick. The show made sure to drop other reminding elements in there, though, and I enjoyed some of these reminders that we weren’t in the present anymore:

* Hodiak perpetually trying to remember to read the newly instated Miranda warning to suspects; he keeps forgetting his card on which the words are written

* “I gotta go and find a pay phone?” “You got one in the car?”

* Ken throwing a Young Republicans fundraiser at his home, with pictures of Reagan and Nixon. “I dig those dudes,” says Manson, who has crashed the party.

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Vivian Zink/NBC