How did Charles Manson amass a following and lead them to commit such horrific acts in the 1960s? That’s the kind of question you hope will be answered in Aquarius.
Inspired by true events, but giving them a fictional spin, the show stars Gethin Anthony – or Renly Baratheon, as Game of Thrones fans know him – as the killer. Set years before the Tate murders, it offers an intriguing insight into the building up of Manson’s “family”. He’s groovy. He’s charismatic. And he likes to write songs and play guitar. It’s no surprise, then, that 16-year-old Emma (Emma Dumont) succumbs to his charms, after she is taken by his group at a party.
Except that it is. Emma’s own back-story isn’t established in much depth during this first hour, leaving you mildly perplexed as to why she’s so happy to be away from her parents for days. Any concerns that do appear – especially when it comes to remembering the steamy events of the night when she was pounced upon – seem to be dismissed almost instantly, blown away by the charm of Manson and his loving troupe.
Perhaps that, though, is the intended effect: Dumont is suitably dreamy-eyed as the inductee, while Anthony is a commanding presence as Manson, selling his mysterious appeal with a smile. When he promises to one day be more famous than The Beatles, you believe him, and not just because you see the lengths to which he’ll go to make his dream happen: one unsettling scene in a car park is played very well by Gethin, whose mood flips from aggressive to plain nasty at the undoing of a belt.
Gethin’s impact is even more impressive, given that Manson turns out not to be the main focus of Aquarius at all: that would be Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), a veteran cop trying to track down Emma. He’s rough around the edges, world-weary and damned if he can remember what the Miranda rights are. One amusing discussion of the recently-introduced warning makes it clear just how much of a gap there is between Hodiak and his young sidekick, Brian (Grey Damon), who is drafted in to go undercover with the cool kids alongside another cop, Charmain (Claire Holt). But even Sam struggles to have much substance: the old-dog-young-pups dynamic is ripped out of the police drama playbook, while Hodiak’s gruff exterior appears to hide a more straight-and-narrow trooper rather than an entertaining maverick. It’s only thanks to Duchovny’s eminently watchable performance that you don’t mind him taking away screen-time from Manson.
But take away he does, and creator John McNamara’s script struggles to build as convincing a case as it might have with a less standard procedural set-up. What it lacks in character depth, though, Aquarius more than makes up for in surface: director Jonas Pate (who helms four episodes of this season and has previously worked on Battlestar Galactica and Friday Night Lights) brings the hazy period vibe to life not just with sex but with a judicious use of music. He doesn’t just throw a NOW That’s What I Call the 1960s! CD on in the background; he plays the whole album and lets the TV show unfold behind it. That rad presentation gives the other familiar elements an engaging pull, helped by a committed cast and a snappy pacing from scene to scene. Can Aquarius grow into a compelling TV series that answers the questions posed by such a controversial figure? Perhaps not, but there might be enough here for it to become a cult success.
Aquarius: Season 1 and 2 is now available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.