In a recent installment of the A.V. Club’s fabulous DVR Club, TV editor Erik Adams and staff writer Joshua Alston offer a wonderful deconstruct of the first two episodes of this series. And they ask a completely serious and legitimate question: Is Manson too good-looking on this show?

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The resounding answer is yes. Manson was famous for being able to lure people into his death cult with his sociopathic social skills and sheer charisma. He was a short, stilted man who—please, let’s not forget—inspired a horrific series of murders, with victims including a pregnant woman and her unborn child.

To his followers he must have appeared to embody a completely free spirit (helped along by the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll), as Aquarius tries to explain the psychopath’s appeal. The show attempts to depict shows Manson’s duplicity as he maintains that he’s only trying to steer everyone away from fear and shame: “I don’t want that. I want to stay feeling good.”

Apart from Good/Bad Manson, Aquarius is also featuring opposite sides of a similar coin with the criminal Manson and the cop Hodiak, who’s still far and away the best thing about this show. It’s solid-old-school-meets-scary-new-school with hippie detective Shafe as a conduit.

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It’s an admirable, ambitious effort, but by this third episode, Aquarius offers too many elements that are just clumsy. Check out Hodiak’s soon-to-be-ex partner, the hardened Ed, after Hodiak catches him sleeping with his ex-wife, Opal: His arms flail about like it’s improv night and he’s been assigned to portray a Sopranos wiseguy: “Soooooo, we good?” It’s all a setup for Hodiak to firmly shake Ed’s hand and reveal, “Yeah, we’re good. And we’re done. I don’t work with liars. It’s a safety issue.” Then Opal reveals that Eddie apparently beats her? And Hodiak just leaves?

Soon after this, Emma’s dad and Manson are post-tryst at the Manson hippie house, and Emma is lying in bed. As her dad leaves, he beeps his horn to get through the hippies, and it’s as if Emma recognizes her dad’s car horn, the way she runs to the window. Of course she gets there in time to recognize her father, giving Manson a chance to spin a lie that her father offered up money for her. Manson tells her, “what can’t be owned will always be free,” a nice parallel to Emma’s end scene, as Manson hands her off like cattle to Rufus the music producer. Emma appears to realize this irony, especially after Charlie’s smacked her, but not enough to leave her new-found family.

As predicted last week, Hodiak and his ex Grace hook up moments after returning from an ill-fated visit to the Manson camp, resulting in the cuddliest as we’ve ever seen Hodiak. He sure doesn’t seem like a snuggler. Afterward, Grace rails at her husband, I guess to show that she’s trying and it’s not her fault her marriage has gone the way of hula hoop? “Just tell me! Tell me anything! Where you go, what you think, who you are!” It reminds me of Harrison Ford complaining to George Lucas about his clunky Star Wars dialogue: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”

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At this early stage in the series, the two sides of Aquarius are set up so separately, they almost don’t belong on the same show. Duchovny in Manson’s house is like putting Wile E. Coyote in Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, so disparate that it just doesn’t work. I guess the twist is supposed to be in the juxtaposition, and the theme of these a’changing times, but Aquarius isn’t there yet. My favorite parts of Aquarius continue to be whenever David Duchovny takes someone down with his knee, which happens again this episode as he reenacts a stabbing murder (of a drug dealer, or something) on Ed. While fun, Duchovny’s angry knee is hardly enough to pin a whole show on.

Aquarius tries, it really does. This week’s theme is about choices. That’s the one thing Charlie pitches to Ken, that “You got a choice about everything in this life” (except, of course, giving Manson dough for Emma). Emma is clearly choosing Manson over her parents; Manson royally disses all parents this episode, as they use candy as some sort of punishment tool.

But what of Officer Tully’s decision to have sex with Roy, Manson’s second-in-command, in order to work her way into the family? She specifically tells Shafe that this was her choice. In the same episode, we see Emma voluntarily get handed off as a sex slave to producer Rufus to secure her hiding spot from Duchovny’s cop. Aquarius appears determined to expose the sunny hippie movement for the rotting, disgusting underbelly underneath. These two decisions are about as far from the eventual women’s-liberation movement as you can get.

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Or is part of Aquarius’ problem that we already know how this plays out? The Tate murders are still two years away, so although Emma may get rescued, Manson has a while to go before he gets caught. (It’s not a spoiler if it happens in real life.) For all the lines tossed around this week like “What’s up with Manson?”, “Have we found Manson?”, and “Go get Manson,” we know those days are unfortunately a while from now. So how will Aquarius fill the next 10 episodes in the interim?

Stray observations:

  • Whenever you hear the word “ball” as a verb on this network series, just replace it in your head with “fuck,” as it would be on cable. Like Hodiak on his ex-wife: “She can drink and she can ball.” Or Roy after his knee injury: “I can’t ball, like at all.”
  • “Tell her who lived right down the street.” “Janis.” “Joplin?”
  • Man, that painful wolf-howling scene. You know things are bad if Manson looks at you like you’re a little off your rocker. And even he thinks those blood-chuggers are weird.
  • But, a tad inspired: Hodiak’s throwaway Bugs Bunny line.
  • New category! Inspired by DVR Club, let’s add Sound Decisions for the week to point out Aquarius’ too-on-the-nose song choices. This week I have two: The Who’s “The Seeker” for Hodiak, and The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” as Shafe wanders through the drug-laced Manson house.

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