NBC’s new hit series “Aquarius” has been massively hyped, and for good reason. The TV show revolves around the hunt for Charles Manson, but the premise is much more broad. Rather than being a historical-fiction take on tracking Manson, it’s really a biopic of the changing 1960’s landscape, but framed around Charles Manson. “Aquarius” is highly stylized, brilliantly acted, and frighteningly addictive.
It’s 1967 and America is ripe with hippie culture, the Vietnam war, and taut race relations. Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) is hired by friend and former romantic partner Grace Karn (Michaela McManus), to find her missing daughter Emma (Emma Dumont). Searching for Emma leads Hodiak to Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony), who’s assembled a conglomeration of outcasts and misled hippies like Emma, who adopts the moniker Cherry.
While Hodiak keeps tabs on Manson, Los Angles froths with a drastically evolving culture. American troops fight in Vietnam, while a clashing anti-war movement surges. Hodiak, a World War II vet, struggles to accept his son Walt’s (Chris Sheffield) opposition to the war. Concurrently, racial tensions rise in the African American and Hispanic communities. The Black Panthers form under the leadership of Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles), as LA becomes further stratified between the hodgepodge of factions.
Headlining “Aquarius” is seasoned actor David Duchovny. As Det. Hodiak, Duchovny shines, highlighting his uncanny ability to seamlessly transform from wittily wise-cracking to serious and contemplative multiple times per episode. Comparisons between Hodiak and Duchovny’s memorable role as Fox Mulder on the long-running series “The X-Files” are unavoidable. Both Mulder and Hodiak are driven almost to a fault, and even the structure of “Aquarius” derives from “The X-Files,” with a great mix of story-arcs and standalone narratives.
Complimenting Duchovny is a terrific supporting cast. Gethin Anthony plays a disturbingly charming and intimidating Manson, and it comes as no surprise that Anthony has a wealth of theatre experience. His on-screen presence is riveting, and he commands attention, stealing each scene. Gaius Charles portrays Black Panthers pioneer Bunchy Carter as deep-thinking, tough, and vulnerable. It’s a difficult combination that Charles masters.
Assisting Hodiak is fellow officer Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), a hippie-cop who spends most of the show undercover. He alternates between infiltrating a drug ring and running odd jobs for Hodiak. Rounding out the cast is Charmain (Claire Holt), a dedicated female officer who wishes to climb the ranks within the station despite discrimination from many male colleagues.
What makes “Aquarius” marvelous, and truly must-see TV, is the varied mixture of genres. It’s one part historical-fiction, with a dash of detective thriller, and a side of drama. Episodes vary from Manson-centric shows to investigations into the murder of a Hollywood movie star, and tracking a cop killer. At times you almost forget about Charles Manson, exhibiting the power of “Aquarius.” Manson lends a central plot, and his erratic behavior is mimicked in the volatility of 1967, but the series is actually a diorama of the late ‘60s. “Aquarius” offers a hearty dose of cinema-quality television, and might be the most binge-worthy show of 2015 thus far.
“Aquarius” airs Thursdays at 9 PM on NBC. The entire 13 episode series is available on demand, and from streaming services.