Has it only been 11 days since Don Draper experienced his breakthrough while meditating at Big Sur? Among the many theories put to rest with “Mad Men’s” finale was the silly (but faintly plausible) notion that the show’s plot would intersect with the real story of the Manson Family cult, especially as “Mad Men” increasingly turned its attention to late-1960s Los Angeles. Alas, Megan Draper never got that invite to come hang out at Sharon Tate’s house on Cielo Drive.
No matter. As NBC’s sometimes pulpy but certainly engaging new summer drama series “Aquarius” makes clear, there’s still plenty of Mansonalia to mess around with for fictional purposes.
Set in the latter half of 1967 and early 1968 (many months before cult leader Charles Manson’s followers committed those gruesome murders), “Aquarius” is a cleverly imagined and handsomely realized tale of an old-school, inherently corrupt police force feeling the rumblings of several social tremors at once: the youth counterculture, the antiwar and black militant movements, a hint of gay rights and the solidifying of a California Republican power nexus that helped elect Richard Nixon — and eventually Ronald Reagan — to the White House.
David Duchovny stars as L.A. homicide detective Sam Hodiak, a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, a looming divorce and a son (Chris Sheffield) who has gone AWOL from duty in Vietnam.
Hodiak gets a frantic phone call from a former lover, Grace Karn (Michaela McManus), the wife of an attorney and Republican operative (Brian F. O’Byrne); the couple’s teenage daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont) has run away. Grace begs Hodiak to find Emma, minus any fuss or publicity that would harm her husband’s career.
Working on the hunch that Emma is one of the thousands of teenagers who’ve answered the Summer of Love’s clarion call to partake in all the grooviness and drugs, Hodiak enlists the help of undercover cop Brian Shafe (“Friday Night Lights’ ” Grey Damon).
The cool-headed Shafe may take a lot of razzing from his colleagues about his shaggy hair and his lack of results in infiltrating the Sunset Strip drug trade, but it doesn’t take him long to lead Hodiak to Manson’s commune, where Emma has tripped out and been sexually initiated into the Family.
“Aquarius” creator John McNamara has envisioned Manson, played by Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon on “Game of Thrones”), as both a tyrant and delusional buffoon, surrounded by mean-spirited female acolytes who commit crimes under his psychosexual spell.
Mostly, he’s just another guy who likes to inflict his guitar playing on a captive audience gathered around the campfire. (Do note the record exec who comes out to hear Manson’s caterwauling: Why, it’s none other than the very same guy — Evan Arnold — who played Leonard in the penultimate group-therapy scene of “Mad Men!” That’s weird, man.)
It’s not possible, I suppose, to envision a fictional Manson and leave out his temperamental tendencies to physically and sexually abuse both women and men, especially when your show needs a villain; it’s to Anthony’s credit that he discovers and portrays a believable Manson underneath all the quasi-religious claptrap that makes Manson a caricature.
“Aquarius’s” violence isn’t gratuitous, but it might be a jolt to network viewers. Or maybe not. After all, what has been more revolutionary in the past 50 years of popular culture than Hollywood’s ability to inure us to all the violence we accept in the service of quality narrative? If we didn’t want our TV shows to be brutal, we wouldn’t elevate the most brutal of them to the Emmy shelf. NBC is merely trying to give viewers what they want — even offering all 13 episodes for online binge watchers beginning Friday. (The show has its broadcast premiere Thursday night; you’re free to watch it in weekly increments on TV.)
As Hodiak, Duchovny is obviously enjoying himself; the role gives him plenty of opportunity to drop in wry comments and asides, but it also has a darker edge to it — reminiscent of more noir-ish stories, like a James Ellroy novel — that draws on the actor’s other strengths. “Aquarius” fits nicely into the current Duchovnaissance. After several seasons adrift in Showtime’s underwhelming “Californication,” the actor has released a novel, an album of songs (both well received) and will reprise his lead role in Fox’s reboot of “The X-Files” next year.
But “Aquarius” also benefits from a large, strong cast of supporting players. As Shafe, Damon is a good match for Duchovny, as the rookie and old-timer realize they both have something to learn from one another. Shafe’s wife (Milauna Jackson) is black, giving him an enlightened perspective on racism both inside and outside the LAPD, but his open-mindedness doesn’t extend to homosexuals. When Hodiak sends Shafe undercover to a gay bar to search for a murder suspect, Shafe returns disgusted: “There’s a line and [gay men] stick their necks out crossing it and they know it. . . . They’re addicted, like all the junkies I see. They’re just sick. It’s sad.”
“You know what I realized trying to understand people?” Hodiak says. “Don’t try to understand them. I know what I’d kill for and what I’d die for and every day on this job we get to see what other people would kill and die for. I used to think it was different, but it’s not. It’s the same. Love, hate — [both are] this side of stupid.”
“Aquarius” is at its best when it slows down and reveals a dedication to context, especially as the story lines fan out from the Manson stuff to more deeply reflect a tide of social upheaval across L.A. As several of Hodiak and Shafe’s cases come together in the end, the show’s only misstep is to end its finale with several cliffhangers.
Make no mistake, it’s a cooked-up story from top to bottom (“Inspired in part by historical events,” a blanket disclaimer explains), but, as “Mad Men” so memorably demonstrated, a smidgen of fact and some attention to period details can blend nicely with make-believe, making for a rather tasty ’60s cocktail.
(two hours) premieres Thursday at
9 p.m. on NBC. All 13 episodes will be available online beginning Friday at NBC.com and some video-on-demand services.