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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Review: Aquarius dawns but it deserves to sink without trace

This photo provided by NBC shows David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak in a scene from the episode,
This photo provided by NBC shows David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak in a scene from the episode, "Home is Where You're Happy," from the new NBC television series, "Aquarius." Duchovny plays a Los Angeles police detective working a case involving Charles Manson which premieres Thursday, May 28, 2015, at 9 p.m. EDT. (Vivian Zink/NBC via AP)

AQUARIUS, which began with a double episode on Sky Atlantic last night, is an odd one. We’re in period crime drama territory here: Los Angeles in 1967, in the middle of the Summer of Love.

Flower power is in full bloom, teenagers are subject to curfew, there are clashes on the streets between the kids and the “pigs”. The Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do . . .” etc) is still a novelty.

The people behind Aquarius have gone to great lengths to make it look and sound authentic. Hippies are shrouded in clouds of dope smoke. The soundtrack swells with The Who, The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit, naturally. Even the blocky typeface in the opening titles recalls the style of old American TV shows.

Striding through this society in flux, taking no bullshit from anyone, is tough, laconic detective Sam Hodiak, played by David Duchovny with a severe buzz-cut.

Ah, but don’t be fooled. Aquarius creator John McNamara makes sure Hodiak is not as square as his hair suggests.

He’s positively cool, in fact. He lives in a beachside pad and has a collection of guitars, which he can play – something that impresses his initially reluctant new partner Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), a young undercover narcotics officer who can walk the walk, talk the talk and, when necessary, toke the toke.

Hodiak needs Shafe as an “in” when he investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend’s 16-year-old daughter, who slipped out of the house when her parents were arguing, went to a party with her boyfriend and was last seen leaving with . . . well, this is where Aquarius becomes problematic.

 

Orgy

She left with Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony, who’s too handsome to play the scrawny, crazy-eyed psychopath) and has become part of his ragtag ‘Family’, the band of followers who, on Manson’s instructions, embarked on an orgy of murder in 1969. One of the victims was Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanksi.

We already have a chillingly definitive account of the murders and the subsequent trials in Helter Skelter, the outstanding 1977 book (later adapted into an outstanding miniseries) by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. But Aquarius is not the Manson story from a fresh angle – or any angle at all.

McNamara calls it “historical fiction”. Frankly, he’s stretching it. That term implies some element of truth, but there’s not a shred of truth in Aquarius.

Aside from Manson and his acolytes, everyone and everything in it is invented, made up, there are no analogues or composites. Nothing that happens on screen happened in reality.

Fictional dramas incorporating real-life historical figures are plentiful. RTE’s Strumpet City, adapted from James Plunkett’s panoramic Dublin novel, had the author’s characters seamlessly interacting with the likes of Jim Larkin and William Martin Murphy.

A two-part episode of Ripper Street, a series known for intelligently incorporating real history into its plots, featured Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, as a key character. Historical fantasy adventure Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell saw magician Strange being recruited by the Duke of Wellington.

History itself is subjective anyway, goes one argument, so why shouldn’t fiction writers play around with it? But Aquarius is taking one liberty too many.

It uses one of the most infamously brutal serial killing sprees in history as set-dressing for a pretty uninspired cop show. I found it glib and distasteful.

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