Mad Men may be over, but we don't have to leave the 60s thanks to NBC's new period crime drama.
Though Aquarius has been promoted as a crime drama centered on Charles Manson, there is also an effort to explore the tensions of the times. Generational changes, racial tensions, the peace movement and the politics of the late 60s are all covered. By combining the new trend towards a single crime per season with the more traditional whodunnit format of procedurals, we get a more nuanced depiction of the era.
The first episode is more Manson focused, as the primary mystery of Emma Kern's disappearance is introduced along with our central players. There's a lot of establishment; how Emma's mother Grace knows Det. Sam Hodiak, how Brian Shafe is an undercover cop, and setting up Charmain for a larger role later. We get to discover Manson along with Emma and the detectives working her case.
Pairing older, square Hodiak with younger, hip Shafe lets the show explore all this conflict. Their different views of the world extend to how to police. But they are also allowed to be more than one note stereotypes. The anti-establishment leaning Shafe proudly served in the army, and old school Hodiak has smoked "dope."
While their personal lives make them compelling, the Miranda rights scene was the funniest of the night, and it also moved the story forward. Even though their banter turned out to be a show for Emma's boyfriend, Rick, the dialogue highlighted what was a major news story of the times.
Shafe: You've got to read him his rights.
Shafe: That new, uh, that Miranda thing.
Hodiak: Miranda? Who?
Shafe: Hey, you gotta it.
Hodiak: You, dirtbag, have the right to, but you don't deserve, or I'll kick your teeth in. How's that?
Hodiak: I can't remember it exactly.
Shafe: You know it?
Hodiak: Do you?
Shafe: I got the, uh, card that they handed out.
This is one of a few conversations that pays off in the second episode. After arresting a suspect, Hodiak starts to read the man his rights, and then pulls out the card Shafe mentioned in the first episode. I really like the continuity of the show.
The two detectives are working Emma's case off the books, since her politically connected father (who has his own secrets) doesn't want a scandal. By the end of the first hour, we know that he has a past with Manson and his prostitutes. By the end of the second, we know that their relationship was intimate.
We don't have to wait very long to have questions answered, but it's fine since more and more questions keep being raised. Manson is seductive to everyone we've seen him with, and manipulative enough that it's hard to tell what he'll do next, or with whom he has past connections.
At times Charlie seems focused, either on seducing a new girl or on advancing his music. Other times his motivations are hard to place. Why exactly does he take Emma to a clothing store when the group has no food? We slowly start to understand his motivations through stories about his childhood, his police record, and interviews with his parole officer.
Emma: I was just in the kitchen Charlie. Um, did you know there's nothing to eat? Like, not a crumb.
Charlie: Come here little thing. Sit. I know your hunger's real. So's mine. So's everybodys. But you know what's bigger than that? Your power. Look. Sadie and Katie are using their power to work on the dream. You know what the dream is right?
Emma has some personal character development coming, or so I hope. Right now, there are brief flashes of her awareness of the situation, though they're overcome by Charlie's sweet words. Being a despondent, wealthy teenager who gets caught up with Charles Manson doesn't make her interesting for very long. Still, there's a glimmer there.
Her mother is tedious to me. I get that Grace and Hodiak had a relationship when they were young; if it's going to be rekindled, the slow burn isn't working. I'm not picking up on much chemistry between the two. Old friends, sure. Romantic potential, eh.
In the second hour, we got our first crime of the week when a woman was murdered in her backyard. It was quite predictably the husband, but as the detectives figured it out quickly, we didn't have to suffer through false leads. The case itself wasn't all that interesting, but because the couple was white living in a black neighborhood, the Nation of Islam showed up in the form of Bunchy Carter.
Bunchy was there to make sure that no one from the neighborhood gets railroaded for the crime, and to protest that none of the black murders in the neighborhood have been solved. He has a past with Hodiak and issued a threat at the end of the episode, so we can look forward to seeing him again.
Bunchy: I see now that my true path lies not in flight from this country...
Hodiak: Oh,Bunchy, I've known you since you were eleven years old.
Bunchy: ...my true path lies in changing this country, because I am not a pacifist.
Hodiak: No, you're a crook in a new costume.
Bunchy: You are a living lie. I am the truth, who will burn your world to the ground.
Hodiak: Does this mean I really get to keep the tie?
Bunchy: Watch your back Hodiak.
The Vietnam War was also covered as Hodiak's son, Walt, who was serving in country, returned to the States under circumstances that may lead to court martial. Walt's mother forged testimonials that she had a terminal illness, and the boy bolted once stateside. There wasn't quite enough exposition or emotional investment for this story to pay off yet, but there are 11 more episodes. Let's hope it pans out.
One thing I don't love about the show is the brief expository scenes. They seem like awkward afterthoughts instead of natural parts of the story. This would be an easy fix, and the more complicated scenes where Hodiak craftily draws out a confession or works an informant show that the writers can do better.
I look forward to finding out where the show is going for the rest of the season. Personally, I'm hoping we get to deal more directly with the women's movement through Officer Charmaine Tully, who keeps getting called back to "women's booking."
What issues would you like Aquarius to explore? Will Emma make it back home? What other secrets are the Karns hiding? Catch up and watch Aquarius online, then let us hear from you in the comments!
Elizabeth Harlow was a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She left the organization in October 2018.