All 13 episodes were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
NBC is either dumping Aquarius or taking an admirable risk with the period procedural, depending on how you look at it. Tonight, after its two-hour premiere, the network is opening up the floodgates, Netflix-style, by making all 13 episodes of the season available at once. The unusual strategy (the Peacock network’s first real flirtation with binge-viewing) is doubly strange because Aquarius is really not the kind of show you’d ever want to gobble down in one sitting. After consuming the entire season, it’s crystal clear that NBC has been promoting Aquarius all wrong – and that’s a real shame.
When it comes down to it, the series is no House of Cards – and just as importantly, star David Duchovny is no Kevin Spacey. Aquarius isn’t an event series but a resolutely sturdy cop procedural, one powered by well-written case-of-the-week plots interwoven with an overarching sense of gathering tension. Marketing has played up the Charles Manson angle (the preferred tagline for the show has been “Murder. Madness. Manson.”), but the real star of the show is LAPD detective Sam Hodiak (Duchovny), a WWII vet and recovering alcoholic who enforces the law by the book but is still more willing to roll with the times than his traditional colleagues.
Hodiak is a Duchovny character through and through, wise-cracking until circumstances dictate that he come out swinging. He’s the perfect guide through which to explore Aquarius‘ immersive late-1960s setting, a pulsating and unexpectedly perilous landscape of hazy clubs, free love and swelling unrest. Like Mad Men, the series attempts to make its fascinating time period a character of its own, though it does so in an odd yet appealing manner. Shooting the interior of the police department through wisps of cigarette smoke and long shadows, Aquarius often evokes a 1940s film noir, a mood complemented by Hodiak’s Chandler-esque weaknesses for drinks and dames.
It fits, because Hodiak isn’t a willing member of the Flower Power generation. He’s showing signs of age, a relic from a different, more defined era of policing, albeit someone with enough self-awareness to actually feel the ground shifting beneath his feet. That means he greets Black Power activists, Vietnam protesters, joint-loving hippies and other ’60s staples with a mixture of irritation and bemusement, fully understanding that the times are a’changing even as he shakes his head at some of the city’s latest transformations. Hodiak’s laconic humor can’t entirely hide his temper, however; there are some terrifically acted moments where the character just explodes, unleashing righteous fury on whatever unhelpful perp is standing in his way. The character is charming, but he can be dangerous whenever less polite measures need to be taken.
As Aquarius opens, Hodiak is investigating the disappearance of virginal teen Emma (Emma Dumont), the daughter of a former flame who goes missing under mysterious circumstances. Wading into the drug-fueled Summer of Love, he soon realizes that his old-school sensibilities won’t get him any answers from a generation instinctively distrustful of his kind. To that end, Hodiak hauls out undercover officer Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), a more progressive cop who’s mocked by the other officers for what they see as his sympathies toward the hippie counterculture, using him to infiltrate the social scene and get answers.