Aquarius makes a classic mistake of trying to summarize an entire decade in America, with all its social tribulations and ideological transitions. The setting is Los Angeles in the 1960s, nonthreateningly conveyed using only the most stereotypical totems of the era, from fashion and slang to the most popularized radio hits. The focus of this essentially wax-museum tour of the era is a young woman, Emma (Emma Karn), who runs away from home to join a small clan led by a young troubadour and raconteur named Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony), and the work of rough and tumble Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) to find Emma, the daughter of his ex-wife. Led by a charmingly haggard Duchovny, Aquarius has the makings of a pulpy procedural, but the series is riddled with thin, too-familiar ideas about race, homosexuality, sexism, art, politics, and capitalism that come off as at once bloated and rushed.
The race angle is especially aggravating, as it essentially just involves Hodiak speaking down to a Black Panther and hesitantly accepting the biracial marriage of his new quasi-partner, undercover cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon). There’s no attention paid to the rampant, violent racism of the era, but rather on how marginalizing the black population was often grossly allowed in the name of “good” business, exemplified in the series by a seedy real estate agent. The show’s writers leave the commentary at that, avoiding the salient details surrounding how Brian and his new wife weathered these issues; they also skimp on elucidating Hodiak’s history in the LAPD, which is characterized as a still-thriving bed of corruption and violence. Despite the fact that the series insinuates Hodiak’s immoral past, the writers go to considerable lengths to make him seem like the most reasonable force for good, even over a genuine progressive like Brian.
As Brian embeds himself in Manson’s den of violent misfits and naïve youngsters, Hodiak works a series of angles connected to the murder of a restaurant owner, as well as working with his ex’s conservative new hubby (Brían F. O’Byrne), who turns out to be in the closet and has an on-and-off affair with Manson. The writers, including creator John McNamara, don’t investigate the social climate that engenders this repression, but rather makes his sexuality his primary weakness, all the more so considering he’s only seen having sex with arguably the most infamous psychotic killer in the history of America. Sexuality, like sexism and race, are just talking points, meant to briefly enliven the story’s mundane, rote structure and general empty-headedness.
The crown jewel of this 1960s For Idiots highlights tour is Hodiak’s son, Walt (Chris Sheffield), a soldier who’s gone AWOL after coming back from Vietnam. The series avoids making any firm statement for or against the war, and Walt becomes nothing more than an unconvincing reminder that Hodiak does, indeed, care about some things. Like Emma, who quickly falls into the sex and drugs of Manson’s cult, Walt is a lost lamb that Hodiak can’t control, partially due to the fact that he has a wandering libido that’s detonated more than one marriage; Hodiak even begins to take up with one of his former wives, Grace (Michaela McManus), Emma’s mother. Despite all the talk of revolution and stereotypes of a volcanic era, Aquarius is about nothing more than the ultimate paterfamilias grieving over the loss of what could have been another generation of good old-fashioned tax payers to a sea of free love and inebriants, taking zero account for the good done by anyone but the grumpy old white dude at the center of it all.