I have a confession to make. Although the events occurred 46 years ago, the Charles Manson murders and the ensuing trial still fascinate me. The definitive book about the case is “Helter Skelter” written by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and published in 1974, and I continue to regard it as the best true crime tome ever penned. If you’ve never read it, treat yourself.
On the night of Aug. 8, 1969, under the orders of Manson, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel went to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles and murdered five people, including Sharon Tate, an actress who was married to film director Roman Polanski and who was eight and a half months pregnant at the time. The following night the same group, along with Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan, arrived at 3301 Waverly Drive, where they killed supermarket magnate Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
The Real Charles Manson Some Manson “Family” Members
Manson and his “family” have been the subjects of myriad books and TV documentaries and two made-for-TV movies both titled “Helter Skelter,” one in 1976 and the other in 2004. And now we have “Aquarius,” a new NBC television series starring David Duchovny as a Los Angeles detective hired to find the missing daughter of a prominent attorney.
In the two-hour pilot of “Aquarius” we see 16-year-old Emma Karn (Emma Dumont) sneak out of her house, where her parents, Grace (Michaela McManus) and Ken (Brian F. O’Byrne), are engaged in a nasty argument, and jump into a car with her date for the evening. They go to a wild party where the two of them go their separate ways, and Emma runs into a guy who introduces himself as Charlie Manson (Gethin Anthony).
Now we cut away from the party to the home of Det. Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), who receives a phone call from Grace telling him that her daughter is missing. Hodiak drops everything and goes to the spacious home of the Karns, where he learns that Emma has been gone for four days. It’s immediately obvious to Hodiak that Grace’s relationship with her husband, Ken, is a troubled one. And we also find out that Hodiak and Grace have an interesting history.
Hodiak agrees to look for Emma, and early in the show we switch back and forth between his efforts to find her and her adventures with Manson. Also during this time Hodiak gets a new partner, a rebellious undercover cop named Brian Shafe (Grey Damon). In addition to searching for Emma, the two also become involved in other cases along the way, but so far at least, the Emma/Manson story seems to be the unifying one for the series.
The plot contains a few unexpected twists along the way, including a bombshell near the end of the pilot that I won’t share except to say I really didn’t like it at all. In fact, it almost ruined the entire show for me.
After seeing the pilot, I have really mixed feelings about this series. I will continue to watch it because of my interest in the Manson case and because it’s intriguing that the story is set two years before the Tate-LaBianca murders. It’s also good to see Duchovny back on the small screen, and he’s perfectly cast as the rather unconventional detective. In an online interview with Ben Travers of “Indiewire” the former star of “The X-Files” explained what attracted him to this series.
“I liked ‘Aquarius’ because I felt like, as a country and even as a world, we always come back to the ’60s often, more than any other decade. We go back to other decades, but almost like deliberately for fashion or for music or whatever. The ’60s, we always come back to for ideological reasons, especially in America, and I thought Manson is really like the turning point of the ’60s. Manson was held up at the time as what’s going to happen if all you people keep doing drugs and fucking each other. You’re going to end up murdering senselessly, cutting babies out of pregnant women. Not the case really, but Manson killed the ’60s because he looked like a hippie, but he wasn’t, and he came to represent the promise of the ’60s — the freedom, the love, the revolutions — and he was held up as, ‘This is where it’s going.’
“So in a way, we were veering left in the ’60s as a nation on the political spectrum, and then we run into Manson, and we veer right; we veer into Reagan almost immediately. Reagan, Bush. So in many ways the ’60s is like this pivotal point in our history, and Manson is like a symbolic pivotal point in the ’60s. So I started to think about it that way, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a very interesting show,’ and like any period show it’s not just the period. You look at what’s happened now with policing; there’s a lot of black power stuff in our show; all the issues are still present. It’s not part of the past.”
The program does capture the mood of the ’60s beautifully with the music, costumes, cars, and sets, and those who did not live through that time period will get a very accurate picture of what life was like back then. It definitely was an atmosphere unlike any other.
With one major exception the acting is quite good. Both Duchovny and Damon are convincing as cops during that turbulent time, and McManus and Byrne successfully create two not-so-admirable parents. Now here comes the rub.
As I mentioned earlier, two made-for-television movies of “Helter Skelter” have aired previously. In the 1976 version Steve Railsback played Manson, and Jeremy Davies did the honors in 2004. Both of them managed to capture Manson’s malevolently maniacal mien beautifully, but unfortunately the same is not true of Anthony. After viewing just the pilot, I am not ready to pass final judgment yet, but thus far Anthony is completely unconvincing in the part of Manson. He lacks that necessary demented gleam in his eyes, and he delivers his lines in a robotic monotone. I hope he improves in future episodes.
I will continue to watch “Aquarius” (NBC has made the entire series available online.) for at least a few more episodes, but based upon what I’ve seen so far, I’m not optimistic about seeing it through to the end. Therefore, at this point I’m going to assign the series a disappointing preliminary score of six, but this could change as things progress. I’ll keep you posted. Love and peace!