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Aquarius Review: David Duchovny Elevates The Manson Family Origin Story

Ever since Netflix started creating original content, binging has become a viable way to consume television and Aquarius marks the first time the major network has opted to release an entire season all at once. And the NBC period-piece is a perfect test case for the new distribution model, as it’s clearly trying to be more ‘cable’ than network, aping other programs that found big audiences via binge-watching on the streaming site.

Created by John McNamara (Prime Suspect), Aquarius follows Police Sergeant Sam Hodiak (X-Files’ David Duchovny) as he investigates a missing person’s case that puts him on a collision course with mass-murderer Charles Manson (Game of Thrones' Gethin Anthony). But the Sergeant is a little too square to infiltrate the hippie circles that the aspiring singer-songwriter-killer runs in. So, he brings in undercover officer Brian Shafe (Star-Crossed’s Grey Damon) to help find Emma (Bunheads’ Emma Dumont), the daughter of one of Hodiak’s former flames and newest member of the infamous ‘family.’

It’s a premise that may be best explored on cable, where network structural necessities and content restrictions wouldn’t make the piece of historical fiction feel like The Following set in the past. To be fair, NBC is the home of Hannibal; unfortunately, Aquarius is not even close to being as dense or rewarding (or graphic, for that matter) as the Peacock’s first real stab at ‘prestige television,’ instead falling somewhere in between being just another procedural and the more ambitious hour-longs found on HBO, FX and/or AMC.

NBC Aquarius Duchovny

The serialization, immensely watchable leading man, interesting milieu and incredible soundtrack do elevate the material, and these elevating elements do sometimes make for entertaining viewing. The long-form storytelling makes Aquarius more narratively engaging than the average procedural but the half devoted to the Manson origin story isn't nearly as compelling as Hodiak and Shafe's investigation, largely because Duchovny is an absolute joy to watch. He's terrific as the seemingly hard-nosed yet ultimately complex (and amusing) Police Sergeant. On the flip side, Anthony's Manson isn't nearly as charismatic or captivating as you'd expect from the 'cult' leader while the series female roles are mostly damsels only there to develop the male characters.

The period setting also helps make Aquarius more interesting than the CSIs and NCISes found on other networks. Taking place in the late 1960s allows the series to discuss a lot of issues while the investigation unfolds including the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the generational divide. The latter is especially fascinating as it relates to the current gap between the Generation Xers and Millennials. Of course, complicated race relations and unpopular military campaigns are not exactly things of the past either. If only the storytelling and camera set-ups were as engaging as the topics being explored.

Again, you can watch the entire first season of Aquarius all at once but I wasn’t itching to press play on the next episode when the previous’ installment's closing credits hit. Maybe, I’ll just tune in Thursday nights before Hannibal, the NBC prestige series I'm dying to binge.

Aquarius premieres with back-to-back installments, “Everybody’s Been Burned” and "The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game," on Thursday, May 28 at 9:00 p.m. ET on NBC. All 13 episodes will be available online, as well as on NBC’s mobile app and various video-on-demand platforms, the following day for four weeks (and it will continue to air Thursday nights at 9). Created by John McNamara, the series stars David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, Emma Dumont, Claire Holt, Grey Damon and Chance Kelly.