Aquarius: Is NBC's Charles Manson Drama Groovy or Gruesome?

Aquarius Series Premiere Recap

Charles Manson: Murderous mastermind, ’60s icon and… aspiring folk star?

That’s just one of the historical nuggets revealed in Aquarius, NBC’s new period drama that chronicles the lead-up to the horrific killings perpetrated by Manson’s followers in 1969. In a moment, we’ll want to hear what you thought of the two-hour premiere. But first, a quick recap:

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The series stars David Duchovny (The X-Files, Californication) as hard-nosed Det. Sam Hodiak and Grey Damon (Friday Night Lights) as his young, hippie-looking partner Brian Shafe. They begin working together when Grace, one of Sam’s old girlfriends (played by Michaela McManus, One Tree Hill), asks him for help finding her runaway daughter Emma (Emma Dumont, Bunheads).

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As Hodiak and Shafe soon learn, Emma has fallen in with Manson (Gethin Anthony, Game of Thrones) and his “family” — a house full of teens and 20-somethings sharing a house, beds and lots of drugs, all in the service of a loosely defined mission. At the series’ start, this means they’re all somehow helping the bearded criminal (he’s also a pimp and con man) achieve his dream of getting a record contract, a goal he pursues with shifty-eyed zeal.

But underneath all of the peace, love and flower power lies the darker story of Manson’s connection to Emma’s father, Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne, Prime Suspect), Charlie’s former lawyer, current blackmail subject and on-again, off-again sex partner. (Seems like a good time to note that, unlike many of the characters in the series, the Karns are fictional.) In Aquarius‘ second hour, we find out that Manson is gunning for Ken to introduce him to a music-label executive, and he’s not willing to hear the word “no.”

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The series takes place in 1967, which means we have two years before Manson and his family commit the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders that will end numerous lives and land Manson in prison for life. But at this point, all the police — including new-to-undercover-work office Charmain (Claire Holt, The Originals) — know is that Manson’s a low-budget thug who makes their jobs tougher. Indeed, even the audience hasn’t quite seen what Manson is truly capable of, though it’s hinted at in his rape of Emma and his brutal attack on a shopkeeper.

Meanwhile, Hodiak and Shafe are occupied with other crimes — such as the murder they investigate in the premiere’s second hour — and local figures like Gaius Charles’ (Friday Night Lights) Bunchy, a vocal Black Power advocate. The two men also have various intrigues going on at home. Hodiak’s son is a soldier AWOL from the Vietnam War because his mom, Hodiak’s ex, faked a terminal illness to get him leave, while things are certainly not over between Hodiak and Grace Karn. Meanwhile, underneath the scraggly beard and fringe jackets, Shafe is a husband — the series makes a point of showing us he has a black wife — and father.

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Aquarius‘ music is great and its visuals rich, and with Duchovny deadpanning (though, it needs to be said, not merely offering up RetroMulder) his way through the proceedings, the latest series from creator John McNamara (Profit) has a lot of eerily intriguing promise.

Now we want to hear your thoughts. Grade Aquarius‘ premiere via the poll below, then back up your choice in the comments.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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61 Comments
  1. Zoe says:

    Honestly? I didn’t even finish the first hour. I was bored by the whole thing.

  2. Ellinas78 says:

    No, no, no. It was playing in the background but this show is bad. Not even decent for a summer show.

  3. Nitemar says:

    Was expecting more for a premiere, but guess is too premature to rate it as pretty bad..at least the music is “groovy”..

  4. Dude says:

    Claire Holt. That is all. I’ll watch every week, I don’t even care. She’s heavenly.

  5. diane says:

    I liked the second hour better. I really like David Duchovny and Grey Damon together.

    • Mel says:

      I was engaged throughout, but agree, Duchovny and Grey Damon were great together. I’d watch for their dynamic alone.

  6. ninamags says:

    So Manson was bi???

    That’s pretty much the only thing I got from the first 2 hours. :/

    I’ll keep watching, though. Love David Duchovny.

    • Karyn says:

      Yes he was bi. He used sex to manipulate everyone. He was also a frustrated musician and that plays a huge role in what he eventually did (or actually what he got his followers to do).

  7. I enjoyed the first hour but fet it flagged in the second. I dug the music. and am curious to see where it goes, although I feel this wont be a real binge worthy series but one that works up more broken up. Nice seeing Duchovy not doing Hank Moody (who I loved.. but its nice seeing him shake things up). And its kind of cool that with the return of Hannibal we’ll have the former co-stars back to back before they re-team for the resurrected “X-Files” mini

  8. shysparrow says:

    I wanted to like this show. I was interested to see a new take on manson. I love Claire holt and Grey Damon. The main detectives are interesting characters. But that’s about it for me. I really did want to like this show but it was beyond boring. It jumps around a lot from so many different side stories. Just didn’t live up to what I expected I guess. Anyone else feel like that?

  9. carterfrancis says:

    Duchovny – A+
    Anthony D-

    Aquarius C

    And this show as a lead in for Hannibal? Hah. Not even close.

  10. KaitlynK says:

    I thought it was about a C, especially with some of the actor’s chosen accents, but the music and “vibe” of it all made it all a B for me. Personally I think they could have done a story like this with a character that was like Manson but not actually a “loosely based on Manson,” if that makes any sense. It took me out of the show a bit since I’m pretty familiar with his story and crimes. But of course I’ll tune in next week but I don’t find the need to watch the rest of the season online.

  11. I found the show to be so far rather confusing but I like how this article sums it up and explains it all to me. Yes I think I will watch the rest of the series in the next few days (as NBC is releasing all 13 episodes online before they air on TV) because I like how it presents itself. However I think the Manson-Karn relationship is rather strange since Karn as his lawyer didn’t want to answer the phone when Manson called, he is upset that Manson is sleeping with his daughter, Manson slices his throat, they have a confrontation at a party, Manson is extorting him just to get to a music producer, and finally they make out at the end of the episode as Manson tells him “to be free”. Since this is rather bizarre reflects how bizarre Manson was, and I expect in the finale we will see him being arrested for the bizarre murders he orchestrated.

    This show may not be a hit, but it is still rather bold for a historical-fiction show which might fair better than Lifetime’s “Lizzie Borden Chronicles”.

  12. Kiddoo says:

    I’ll probably keep watching but I was greatly disappointed. Fox Mulder was great of course. Liked his partner as well but that was about it. It’s hard to make a show where Manson isn’t the worst piece of…character. I found myself hoping the girl’s dad would get killed somehow.

  13. MP says:

    I was looking forward to this show, but I thought it was boring. The saving grace was the music.

  14. Blake says:

    Please tell reporter Kimberly Roots that the show is set in Los Angeles and not San Francisco. Did she actually watch the pilot?

  15. Ian says:

    I found myself thoroughly disturbed with Manson’s and Kern’s relationship, which is to be intended, but the rest of the show just wasn’t quality enough to make up for that, and grab you and make you feel it’s worth suffering intense nausea.

  16. alienhead04@aol.com says:

    Gaius’s character is actually a member of the Nation of Islam. I don’t remember them mentioning the Black Panthers at all. That’s a whole separate group.

    • Isobel says:

      Bunchy Carter leaves the Nation of Islam and joins the black panthers later, he’s a real historical figure

  17. Batbara Vaughan says:

    I think they made Manson too good looking. He a crazed maniac and it shows on his face. He’s NUTS.

  18. Batbara Vaughan says:

    Also I lived near where it happened. I was only 20 years old myself. I was petrified when it happened. I lived alone.

  19. Jenny Mendenhall says:

    I loved how as the story increased not only in plots but also in characters. Not to mention the surprises they through in. I didn’t want it to end. This show will definitely be on my must see, can’t wait to see schedule this summer!

  20. farleyc says:

    I was totally and completely swept up. I thought it was incredible. Surprised to see how many here were unimpressed. To me, everything about Aquarius was brilliantly done!

    • Karyn says:

      Agreed.

    • wrstlgirl says:

      Also agree. I learned a long, long time ago that no television show was ever going to be perfect and completely blow me away. If that’s what people expect then they will always be disappointed. This was an excellent premiere and will only get better as time goes on.

  21. Tam says:

    Thought Aquarius was above average. Not for those : with the attention span of a gnat ; only able to communicate in 142 characters ; that feel the need to give a play by play of their life in order to feel alive .There wasn’t one selfie in the 2 hours I watched and no mention of Kim K’s fat azzz.
    All in all I think if enough geezers can stay up that it might have a chance. A cursory knowledge of American history -mid 20th century to 2000 – would allow one to enjoy the screenplay ,acting and slower vibe of the series without puzzling over the historical context of the action .

    • suzi says:

      “All in all I think if enough geezers can stay up that it might have a chance.”
      The show is scheduled from 9-10 pm,so staying up isn’t really a problem (studies have proven that geezers stay up just as late as the young uns anyway…). Also if I’m not mistaken, the show is a 13-episode “event series” , so it needs no chance.
      I enjoyed it, agree with above average.

  22. NB says:

    I did not like that the LGBT community was used as a boogeyman in this. Yes, I can understand Manson’s physical threatening of Emma’s father, because he was trying to intimidate him. I did not like that Emma was “threatened” with relations with Manson’s other girls, and I was downright offended that the writers felt the need to make the murder suspect of the second episode someone whose wife decried as a “pansy” during arguments. There was a fourth instance, but I can’t recall it now.

    • Karyn says:

      That’s a bit of a stretch. The story takes place in the 60s in a less ‘politically correct time.’ You are offended by the word ‘pansy’ and something else you can’t remember? Seems like you are looking for something to be offended by.

  23. Karla says:

    While I liked it enough to keep watching, it has a lot of issues. The script is just all over the place. Apparently there will be a sort of case of the week, like ep 2 had, added in to the main plot, which did make things drag and felt at times like a meaningless detour. The actor playing Manson is nowhere near charismatic enough nor were the lines he was given enticing enough to make instant converts. Along the same line, many of the male actors look alike, so that got confusing. And it turns out the actress playing 54 year old Duchovny’s old flame is 32. The actress playing her daughter – 20. There wasn’t someone more age appropriate available Hollywood? Finally, I’m sure this was done a while ago, but all the recent police brutality issues & riots make it hard to root for Duchovny’s character’s old school police tactics. Really it seems the producers spent all their money getting Duchovny and music rights and not much else.

  24. Barbara says:

    I found it very real for this time period. Actors all were dead on, especially Manson. The jumping around is LIFE!

  25. Al says:

    Omg! How can Michaela McManus (SVU ADA Kim Greylek!) look old enough to play mother to a teenager?!

  26. Joey Padron says:

    show is pretty good. keep watching hopefully next episodes will get better.

  27. Carol Fields says:

    Sometimes, weaving fiction and history works well – Mad Men did it, but used historical goings on as background details for context. This show brings it front and center, and does it horribly. In Duchovney’s defense, the writers just haven’t defined his character, except in the press packets. But the rest of the characters aren’t much better. “Manson” is laughably bad…a massive misstep on a person who was/is a clearly defined monster. His girls has not memorable. The only thing that rings true is the soundtrack, which is relied on heavily to create atmosphere. Forgettable.

    • smartysenior says:

      I agree “Manson is laughably bad”, he’s a Brit actor with some kind of weird hillbilly accent going on which is bad enough except even the bad accent is inconsistent. Manson was from the midwest guys, at least get a proper actor.

  28. Gerri says:

    The preview trailer looked good, but the first two hours were kinda slow. Not sure I’ll continue.

  29. Jan says:

    Even though I really like Duchovny, I can’t watch this. I lived in L.A. during the “Manson Years.” I was scared, then, and don’t need to relive it.

  30. Jeri says:

    I really liked it. Lots of evil people in real life history, this doesn’t try to excuse him.

  31. Cindy says:

    Frakkin? I’m 52 and followed the actual story when my parents finished reading paper. This show makes Manson out to be more goodlooking than he is. His life in Indiana is never really addressed. Traded for a bucket of beer. How about how his isolation created or contributed to his mental illness. Indiana is know for breeding crazy people, Jim Jones , and others.

  32. liv says:

    I watched the whole season last night, it gets better every episode!

  33. Bob Backus says:

    Hard to believe anyone fell for that claptrap that came from Manson’s gob. Deep thoughts by Jack Handy. Guess you need to be drug addled to be fooled that crap.

    • Karla says:

      That’s one of my issues with the show. Insane monster that Manson was, he still attracted many loyal followers. Still does get them even today. He didn’t do it by spouting lines like he does in this show. This is a very pale imitation and this actor has zero necessary charisma to lead a cult. Anyway the ratings show people were not too impressed by this, especially as they seem to have dropped from 1.3 to 0.9 so far from the first half hour to the last. That’s a lot of people getting bored & turning it off. I was looking forward to this but I think for once the critics were right.

  34. HARV SCHNEIDER says:

    If they are going to show everything on a dark, barely visible screen, why not just show a black screen all the time. We turned it off after the first hour. Who calls that great directing? Even the scenes in the police headquarters were shot dark; did no one pay the power bill that day. Horrific visuals that definitely overpowered any acting skills. Hope it dies a slow painful death.

  35. mark dibble says:

    This is what buggggggssss me about armchair critics, actual critics AND more than a few producers: The first presentation, be it the pilot or stringing the first 2 episodes together (intended that way????) is almost always intended as introductory pieces for characters places and style. To encourage dumping a show, either from the network schedule or one’s own personal list of “gotta-see-s”, is doing a disservice to the show …. (look how many episodes of the GONG SHOW went out after its premiere). The ONLY thing I yelled at the TV about during the pilot was that Charlie was NO musician, songwriter or singer. Van Houten, Krenwinkle and Kasabian nad the rest were so jacked on home-grown, Thai sticks and peyote my DOG would have sounded good to them! Don’t believe me …. search out the “Garbage Dump” song and you will find others.

  36. JEF says:

    I thought it was great. Maybe it’s because I’m familiar with the era but I’m hooked.

  37. kirads09 says:

    I am 2 episodes in and really like it. David Duchovny is wonderful as anticipated. My only minor complaint is I personally feel they have way overdone it with the music. There can be too much of a good thing. A little less, better chosen to match the storyline at the moment, would be more meaningful and not as annoying. JMHO I rated above average.

  38. Pam says:

    It was OK… A little too dark for me. And I would like to see more David Duchovny!

    • Karla says:

      I’ve seen more than one person comment that the show was “dark” so this isn’t something personal. Just curious, are you very young and perhaps not too familiar with Charles Manson or the late 60s in general? I know that history is barely taught in school these days, and then it’s all about “American exceptionalism” so you can hardly blame kids for not knowing stuff. Even when I was in school, history “ended” after WWII but we also had Baby Boomers shoving the 60s down our throats. Just wondering where these comments that the show is unexpectedly dark are coming from.

  39. swamp yankee says:

    This show is demanding in it’s complex web of characters all of whom, it seems to me, are clearly drawn and motivated. Not for a moment was I bored. My mind was busy absorbing relationships that are set ups for fantastic possibilities down the line. This thing is going to loaded with turns,twists and surprises. Love the Hodiak character and the freedom he has
    from contemporary political correctness. He expresses what a lot of older viewers aren’t allowed to in everyday life. Manson is great. Why do some here think he would be the same guy in 1997 as he was at the hight of his insanity in 69 when America was first introduced to him as an icon of evil? Can’t wait to see what this actor and cast develope with these potentially combustible
    characters and unpredictable times.

  40. Colleen Rock says:

    I enjoyed the first hour more than the second. I hope the storyline of getting Emma back doesn’t go on too long. I really like the general premise of the show but thinking it may be too dark/gruesome for me over time. Graphic rape and sexual episodes not my cup of tea. Also hope there are a few moral upright citizens in the characters.. Don’t want to watch a show where everyone drinks and drugs too much, sleeps around and/or murders people.. Gets old. I really want to like the show.. Good cast, quality acting.. Another couple shows will tell.

  41. Doug says:

    Badly written.Poorly acted.Yeah … it is the 1960s … music really unnecessary.