To steal a line from Futurama, David Duchovny is the world’s first great acting robot. The characters he plays are all similar – simultaneously stiff and yet too laid back. He doesn’t emote so much as he emulates emotions. Doubt, anger, sadness – he approximates them all. The only thing he’s ever felt genuine about is cracking jokes, which makes perfect sense: a punch line relies on being disingenuous.
That may sound bad, but these aren’t necessarily weaknesses. They make Duchovny unique among actors. No, you’re not going to cast him as an angry warrior or a weeping poet – he could never pull it off. He can do something almost no other actor can, though. He can deliver many characters that viewers meet in the real world, the ones who are always covering their true emotions by approximating others. Sometimes they’ve done this to the point that there’s not much true emotion left under the surface.
This is who Duchovny plays in NBC’s new crime thriller Aquarius. As Detective Sam Hodiak, you trust him but you can’t predict him. He can empathize with a murder suspect one minute, selling both the audience and the suspect on how hard Hodiak will fight for him because of special circumstances. Then he casually betrays everything we just watched in the very next scene. In so doing, he also mirrors the manipulative power dynamic of the suspect he’s stalking across 1960s Los Angeles: Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony).
Hodiak is investigating the disappearance of a young girl, Emma Karn (Emma Dumont). It quickly becomes apparent that she’s with Manson – after his first stint in jail, but before his cult’s famous murder spree. Manson himself is similarly hard to predict. When Emma asks him why his house has no food, he deflects and begins talking about what she’s really hungry for: his cause. That cause covers both his nonexistent music career and an amorphous social revolution he wants to enact. In essence, it’s all just an excuse to stable underage women and sleep with them.
Hodiak and Manson are different people with completely different morals, but they use similar tactics to get what they want. Hodiak does so for the law; Manson does so for psychosis and ego. Both will lie, beat, and steal in the first two episodes.
Aquarius is also saturated in 1960s atmosphere. We’re not quite talking Mad Men levels of production design, but Aquarius fogs its visuals just right and has an ear for dialogue. I can’t tell you if the slang is exactly accurate, but it does the job of transporting you to the time. More importantly, all the characters feel at home saying it.
Hodiak is paired with a young narcotics officer, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), who agrees to help him find Emma. Grey Damon is a scruffy, charming find as Shafe. There are points where Hodiak takes Shafe under his wing until Shafe balks at Hodiak’s whatever-it-takes style. We’ve seen this dynamic before, but after an awkward opening, the two play it well. It also helps that they don’t rely on a straight good cop/bad cop dynamic. Duchovny plays both the good and bad cops all on his own. Damon’s Shafe doesn’t add “good cop” as much as he adds “undercover cop.”
Of course, when Shafe needs it for his own narcotics work, he doesn’t mind taking advantage of Hodiak’s extra muscle. It’s fun to see Duchovny play brute force, and the partners’ relationship is further complicated by a question that gets raised but not answered in the second episode: is Hodiak racist? Much as today, 1960s Los Angeles was supercharged with racial tensions. We see Hodiak clash with the Nation of Islam about 20 minutes into the second episode. Since the formula seems to be pursuing Manson over the course of a season while solving unconnected murders every episode, one might expect Aquarius is laying the groundwork for some interesting racial clashes. I only hope they pay enough mind to how those story lines can speak to the broken dynamic between African-American communities and police today.
Aquarius finds its rhythm pretty quickly. The standalone plots are clever. Hodiak prefers trapping suspects in their own logic and emotion. Whatever else you think about him, he’s a skilled detective. How he solves a case is more akin to Kyra Sedgwick’s interrogation room conversations in The Closer than more action-oriented fare like Criminal Minds.
The larger Manson arc does see some complication. Hodiak is investigating Manson in the first case because the missing Emma Karn is the daughter of an ex. Emma’s father, a high-powered lawyer, once represented Manson. From there, it gets much more involved, but the twists and turns play with history in an intelligent way and never feel like coincidence. It’s handled deftly so far, but they’ll need to be very careful that it doesn’t tread into soap opera territory. Right now, it’s in the right place, but I could easily see Aquarius going off the rails if things get too complex.
Aquarius benefits by not jumping around too much. It gives Hodiak’s, Manson’s, and the Karn family’s stories each time to unfold. It doesn’t hurry and never panics about leaving one thread un-addressed for too long. In a period piece, giving each story the space to breathe goes a long way to helping us feel the texture of the time and place we’re being asked to inhabit. For a procedural, it never feels very much like a procedural.
In terms of trigger warnings, sexual assault and rape are depicted on the show. They’re used to inform not just the character of Manson but also how he indoctrinates others through sexual encounters. The depictions go further than they need to, but they don’t feel like they’re present to be a draw in and of themselves. They’re directed for revulsion, not titillation. They want an audience to feel repulsed and I felt repulsed. They use depictions of sexual assault for a purpose, not just as a storytelling crutch. Now that they’ve done that, I hope it isn’t a recurring feature.
Should you watch Aquarius? I’d recommend it, unless the trigger warning I just described makes it untenable. I’m a huge X-Files fan and I love Duchovny, but I’ve never thought he’s a great actor. That’s why I’m surprised how well he’s used in Aquarius. Playing a character who emulates emotional responses and who you bounce off of for 40 minutes isn’t usually handled so deftly. Certainly, most actors can’t accomplish that with the charm Duchovny manages. More than anything else, it makes those two minutes every episode when he lets his guard down and reacts honestly to someone incredibly special. In that way, Duchovny’s not just manipulating his suspects; he’s manipulating the audience, too. He may be an acting robot, but he is a great one.
There are still many ways in which Aquarius could go wrong. Of the 7 other shows John McNamara has opened as executive producer, each has run one season or less. Take from that what you will. Aquarius has a fairly strong start. Its leads are well-cast, it’s drenched in 60s atmosphere, and it uses Duchovny very well. It shows a lot of promise if it can keep itself as restrained and patient as it has been in its first couple of episodes.
Honestly, if there’s a comparison I’d make, it’s not to another TV show. If Aquarius feels like anything, it’s a TV version of video game L.A. Noire, albeit with less bugs and shoot-outs and more investigation. Their plots take place two decades apart, but the way they each construct a past era of Los Angeles is strikingly similar.
Aquarius is also a network experiment. While NBC will run the show weekly, all 13 episodes are freely available on its website for the next four weeks. Just like Netflix, you can binge-watch them all today if you want, or stretch them out over the next month. Or you can just watch Aquarius when it airs every Thursday on NBC at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Are you excited David Duchovny’s back on TV? Will you be checking out Aquarius?