August 23, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Aquarius”


How on earth is NBC going to bring back AQUARIUS next season?  In the history of broadcast television, it may well be the lowest-rated series ever renewed by a major network, with viewership so abysmal that the show couldn’t sustain a normal summer run and had to be pushed to the netherworld of Saturdays.  The resulting numbers would barely make it a bubble show on a basic cable network.  Even assuming a negligible license fee, there’s no way it can be paying its own way.  And since it already stars David Duchovny, the traditional tactic of adding a big name to the cast as a kickstart won’t help.

To be sure, Hannibal, the bloody partner of Aquarius this summer, survived for 3 seasons despite its own low ratings (although its luck ran out this year, as the numbers hit bottom), but that could be justified by the critical raptures the show regularly received.  The same could hardly be said of John McNamara’s muddle of a series.  Its concept was to explore the dark energy of mid-1960s Los Angeles, ripping aside the traditional emphasis on groovy spirits, social progress, genial highs and free love to focus on an underlying culture of corruption, racism and violence.  Its protagonists were Detective Sam Hodiak (Duchovny) and a fictionalized, pre Tate/LaBianca murders Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony), who became linked when one of Hodiak’s exes, Grace Karn (Michaela McManus) asked him to track down her daughter Emma (Emma Dumont), who’d run away to join Manson’s “family.”

You can’t fault McNamara for lack of ambition:  he tried to load just about everything 1960s-related into the resulting story.  Emma’s father Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne) wasn’t just a deeply closeted gay man who’d had sex with Manson, he was also a fundraiser for Richard Nixon’s election campaign.  Hodiak’s colleagues included undercover narcotics cop Shafe (Grey Damon), who was married to a black woman, and ambitious newbie Tully (Claire Holt), who respectively chafed against racism and sexism.  Hodiak formed a professional relationship with Bunchy (Gaius Charles), a community activist turned Black Panther.  Hodiak, of mixed parentage, somehow managed to carry burdens of both Catholic guilt and Jewish daddy issues in various episodes.  In case that wasn’t enough, Hodiak’s own son was a pre-Wikileaks–and even pre-Daniel Ellsberg–recipient of secret government papers about the Vietnam War, from which he’d personally deserted.  It was presumably McNamara’s decision to coat all of this thematic rot visually in a thick sludge of smoggy brown cinematography, which made exteriors look post-apocalyptic, and made night scenes all but impossible to discern.  (In a key action scene tonight, only a helpful sound effect made it clear that a character’s neck had been broken.)

The plotting and pacing were all off, with some stories resolved procedurally within a single hour, and others dragged out or dropped and then abruptly taken up again.  Even though Duchovny is a genuine TV star, who effortlessly holds the screen, his detached-hipster vibe was all wrong for Hodiak, who was intended as a much more conventional authority figure (with a secret heart of gold), and his occasional insensitive remarks aimed at minorities or women made him sound much more like his Californication character than could have been planned.  Anthony was an effectively creepy Manson, but most of the supporting cast was reduced to one recognizable trait or less.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Rafael Yglesias and Staff Writer David Reed (from a story by McNamara), and directed by Jonas Pate, didn’t serve as much of an ending.  Hodiak and Shafe caught a couple of killers who died unnecessarily in the ensuing arrest, but both cops were cynically given medals anyway, while Ken was revealed to be a two-time killer, and Emma went back to Charlie and the family.  Despite Hodiak’s efforts to broker a deal for his son, the boy leaked his documents and was arrested by the MPs.  Cliffhangers for anyone who cared included the abduction of Tully, who despite Shafe’s repeated warnings, insisted on investigating one of his drug cases alone, and an Internal Affairs summons for Hodiak.

Only NBC knows why it rushed to renew Aquarius halfway through its run, as the bottom was falling out of its ratings, and only NBC knows what it’s going to do with 13 new episodes now.  Even if the show pushes ahead to the more infamous part of Manson’s career, will anyone watch?  Since the network has nothing to lose, it will probably repeat this year’s stunt of releasing the season online for binge-watching (the network has never disclosed any hard numbers for the result), and of course behind the scenes it’s possible executives are scurrying to back off their commitment.  Otherwise, though, the whole sorry crew of Aquarius will return a year from now, whether anyone wants them to or not.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."