Review: This is the yawning of the age of ‘Aquarius’

David Duchovny plays a Los Angeles police detective working a case involving Charles Manson on “Aquarius.”
David Duchovny plays a Los Angeles police detective working a case involving Charles Manson on “Aquarius.” NBC

Somewhere within the mess that is “Aquarius” is an unoriginal but passable police procedural struggling to get out but often failing against the insurmountable force of over-thought mediocrity.

The 13-episode limited series, created by John McNamara and launching at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC, is set in Los Angeles a couple of years before Charles Manson’s followers slaughtered actress Sharon Tate and others in Benedict Canyon and, the next night, killed a supermarket executive and his wife.

It was August 1969. The LA summer was hot and dry. A few weeks before the killings, American astronauts landed on the moon. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in ’68. The storied Summer of Love had gone bust in 1967 in San Francisco. The entire decade seemed to be coming to an end in a kind of freefall that would be summed up as “Helter Skelter” in the Beatles song.

As “Aquarius” begins in 1967, Samson Benedictus Hodiak (David Duchovny) is a self-loathing cop trying to stay on the wagon and away from his alcoholic wife, Opal (Jodi Harris). Grace Karn (Michaela McManus), a former girlfriend, contacts Hodiak after her teenage daughter Emma (Emma Dumont) goes missing. Grace is now married to Ken Karn (Brian F. O’Byrne), a powerful lawyer with ties to the Republican National Committee. Emma, rechristened Cherry, has hooked up with Charles Manson’s (Gethin Anthony) “family” and is living in a communal compound off the beaten path in LA.

Hodiak is working on other cases that are intermittently more interesting than the overcooked Manson half of the series’ dual focus. Reluctantly, he’s forced to partner with a young, long-haired hotshot named Brian Shafe (Gray Damon), who is deemed more suitable to work undercover among hippies, drug dealers, gay men and other “degenerates.” The series goes out of its way – too far for credibility, really – to remind us of how much things have changed since 1967. African-Americans are no longer called “colored,” female cops aren’t ordered to clean coffee makers, Hispanic cops don’t have to hide their ethnicity, and gay acceptance has advanced so far that same-sex couples can get married in Los Angeles if they want to.

On paper, there is potential value in weaving Manson mythology, much of it fictionalized, into cases of drug dealing and murder that occupy Hodiak and Shafe much of the time. Some of the links work, despite feeling artificial. Others don’t, though, and that’s because McNamara has mostly bitten off more than he can chew. He wants to essentially use Manson as a kind of lens on the tumultuous last years of the decade, a manifestation of the social and political unrest that seemed to keep the nation on edge.

One problem with that is that Manson and his family look about as much like authentic hippies as Young Republicans at a Nixon rally, or backup singers on “The Donny and Marie Show.” Another problem is that McNamara says “look at that” but never goes deeper or connects the dots in a revelatory way

Anthony is probably too handsome to bring complete credibility to Manson. But his biggest obstacles are script and direction. His Manson may come off as threatening at times, but overall he’s just not believable enough to be very scary. Worse, at times he’s just silly.

Duchovny is the center of the show regardless of his performance, which is often hobbled by the mediocre script. In general, Hodiak’s a guy trying to do the right thing but breaking rules left and right, in life and on the job. He’s supposed to be old school all the way, but he comes off as a screaming liberal in comparison to some of the other cops at times – even in comparison to Shafe, which is completely illogical.

“Aquarius” is watchable but oddly bland, given its subject matter. It’s not so much “Helter Skelter” as it is “The Long and Winding Road.”