From one LA-based crime drama (True Detective) to this, a new series starring David Duchovny that’s set in late 1960s Los Angeles and features the real-life serial murderer and notorious cult leader, Charles Manson, among its cast of characters. Any show that uses 1967 and the Manson killings as its backdrop is an easy sell – only two days after the 46th anniversary of his most infamous murders, the incident still provides ample curiosity to those interested in real-life crime stories and how this heinous crime seemed to curdle of a decade that had promised so much. Aquarius had a lot to live up to, that was for sure.
A few weeks ago I was introduced to Karina Longworth’s superb podcast, You Must Remember This, which explores the forgotten histories of characters from LA and Hollywood in the early half of the 20th centuries. Unlike something like Serial – which presented a real-life story as if it was a crime drama of fiction – Longworth’s scrupulously researched episodes present the facts.
For her latest series, Longworth tells the story of Charles Manson and his ‘family’. It’s a 360° examination of not just Manson, his rise to infamy, the power he exerted over his family members and the terrifying timeline of events that led to the murders of five people in 1969, including actress Sharon Tate. Yes, Longworth tells the story of the the murders that took place at (the now named) 10066 Cielo Drive, but she also examines the sociopolitical and cultural contexts of Los Angeles in the late 1960s in which Manson and his ‘family’ existed and over-lapped with stars from them movies and the music world. Most importantly, Longworth gives a voice to Sharon Tate the person, who often gets forgotten in among all the carnage of the crime itself.
You Must Remember This is well worth a listen, but that is a thoroughly researched and well presented piece of aural journalism. Aquarius is mainstream, network drama, and the differences are stark.
Coming away from You Must Remember This you feel totally immersed in late-1960s LA but leaving the first episode of Aquarius – and yes, it is only the first episode let’s not forget – you feel as though you’ve only just scratched the surface.
The problem with shows like this, which intertwine real-life characters and events with fictional characters, is that we know what the end game is going to be. We know that Manson will, during the two years leading up to the Sharon Tate murders, descend into a dizzying rabbit hole of paranoia, conjure up stories of race wars and manipulate his followers (mostly young women) into preparing for the apocalypse, or Helter Skelter as he called it. Which all means the drama that leads up to the event we all know about had better be good because we can go elsewhere and watch a documentary that tells the story in a much more dramatic fashion. Get the drama right, however, and the real-life context isn’t an impingement or burden; it’s a constant source of menace and trepidation bubbling away in the background.
Sadly, in the first episode, Aquarius acquiesced to the former.
We saw Hollywood parties, where hippies copped off with each other and took drugs, while music from the day swirled around the soundtrack like ghosts in a haunted house. We saw young teen Emma Karn sneak off with her boyfriend to one of these parties never to come back, plucked from the fray, seemingly at random, by one Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) who slowly and seductively swallowed her into his coterie.
On her tail was the LAPD’s Sam Hodiak (Duchovny, all sharp suits and army-grade flat top), who was as un-counter culture as you could possibly be. An old-school detective who didn’t understand these young ‘uns and their new loose ways, he had a penchant for unreconstructed techniques in interviewing his suspects (ie. he beat them up in toilets). The character reminded me of Gene Hunt, that brilliant, infuriating Neanderthal in Life On Mars, but there the comparison ended. Duchovny felt miscast to me – too nice, too unexpressive and too softly spoken to play a grizzled, angry cop from the old school. I wanted skin of leather, lines of life etched into his face and the stench of self-loathing wafting from every open pore. Duchovny never gives you those things (although he’s a fine actor). The Life On Mars comparisons continued when Hodiak nabbed young, bearded cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) as his partner. The Sam Tyler to his Gene Hunt.
We need to let this relationship develop, but certainly by the end of the first episode there wasn’t much to go on – scenes were so short and featured so many musical hits from the period they felt like music videos rather than any examination of character. As soon as Hodiak or Shafe said something (sometimes a sentence) we were on to something else. Chill your boots guys, chill your boots.
Yes, it was bathed in a sun-kissed, weed-drenched fuzz, but I wanted a much more from Aquarius, first episode and all. Especially from Manson and Anthony, who, like Duchovny, felt a bit miscast. He was neither charismatic enough nor menacing enough to be taken seriously as the leader of a cult who seduces and manipulates people at the drop of a kaftan.
Still, it’s only the first episode and it has already been renewed for a second series, so I’m hoping this will develop and grow.