Vivian Zink / NBC

Charles Manson And Dennis Wilson Strike A Chord On Aquarius

Sarah D. Bunting doesn't really love the show, but this friendship might keep her hangin' on.

Aquarius returned for its second season tonight with a supersized commercial-free quadrisode, the latest means-of-distribution stunt designed to remind us it exists (last year's, in which NBC aired the shows on a traditional weekly schedule while dropping the entire season on Hulu at the same time, worked well enough to get the show renewed on the network, but apparently not so well that execs wanted to repeat it). I have no issue with Aquarius existing -- it's a likable, watchable show that doesn't quite achieve essential-viewing status, because it doesn't really understand what it is and what it does well.

What it is, as I've noted before, is a police procedural with an appealing, if occasionally Mario-Sue-ish, lead that got sold on the strength of the Charles Manson connection. David Duchovny's Sam Hodiak gets almost all the ladies, cracks almost all the cases, and is theoretically on the trail of, or on a trail parallel to, sawed-off scuzzball Manson as 1968 unfolds, because evidently creator John McNamara wanted to set a cop show in the '60s so the police work would look more like L.A. Confidential and involve less untelegenic computer-inputting -- and the best way to sell that concept is pin the fictional-cop parts to the very real crook Manson and his fubar Family. I'd hoped vaguely that the writers might use the second season to move away from Manson, though, because despite what's probably the gold standard of dimensioned performances of Manson by Gethin Anthony, it's...Manson. Aquarius seems to think it still has to sell us on the idea that he's a bombastic psycho. Guys, we all have Wikipedia and the Cloo channel. We got it.

Alas, no dice. Hodiak's the protagonist, but Manson's the plot engine, and Aquarius shows its season-arc cards pretty early with a flash-forward to August 9, 1969, the night the Family murdered Sharon Tate and her friends on Cielo Drive -- so there goes any hope I had that the show might sideline one of its weaker initial concepts. And that's not the only unfortunate aspect of the first season that's carried over; Hodiak's bitter shitty estranged wife is joining us again, along with even cheaper-looking wigs and one of my very least favorite fictional-contrivance conflicts on a police drama, the wives and girlfriends who have just realized like ten minutes ago that cops work long hours under dangerous circumstances and may not always react to the stress with fidelity to their vows. Seriously, television: leave it out. Michaela McManus almost sells it at the end there, too, the idea that she's gone from sitting alone in one house to sitting alone in another, only this one is dingier because: cop salary -- but you shouldn't have made her, because Grace and Hodiak haven't divorced their actual spouses yet and there's the matter of Gay Ken's campaign, not that anyone cares about that but you don't need any additional roadblocks there.

...This isn't an I Can't With This, so I'll move on, but along with some of the less desirable and effective aspects of the show, Hodiak's anachronistic wisecracks (delivered with flawless timing by Duchovny) and fond older-bro relationship with Shafe have returned, Charmain's looking like she'll get good shit to do, and maybe Li'l Hodie's whole court-martial kerfuffle is going to tie into the main story instead of obliging everyone to sit around making cube-poo faces. But the most promising aspect of the new season is Aquarius's exploration of the weird, awkward "friendship" between Manson and the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson. One of the things that makes Manson a compelling figure is that co-existing alongside the crazy racist delusions of future grandeur and the both half- and overbaked cultish blathering about communal identity was a very traditional childish need for attention and reinforcement in the form of pop-music stardom. Manson told his cracked girls he wanted to make money as a buffer against the coming race-war apocalypse -- which he could have just as easily "buffered" by not being a bigot and/or threatening to start said war, but let's leave earth logic out of it -- but what he really wanted was to get famous and have people love him and his art.

Unfortunately, Manson...well, he didn't suck; he wasn't even bad enough to suck. He could play a little; his lyrics, some of them, weren't terrible. He was forgettable, a mediocrity, and Dennis Wilson, more than a little easily led by people who claimed to have answers or know people who did, started out sincerely wanting to work with and think with Manson. But then he began to get creeped out. Manson and his followers smelled bad and broke his stuff; the contacts of Wilson's that Manson had hoped to leverage were considerably less tolerant and equivocal than Wilson. (Terry Melcher's failure to sign Manson to the contract Manson considered his due may have gotten the people who lived in his old house on Cielo Drive killed, albeit indirectly.) It's an odd chapter in an already-odd story, and it's both satisfying (Manson is humiliated) and depressing (...and expresses that via a random pair of mass hits).

I power-listened to Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast series on Manson's Hollywood earlier this year, and I can't recommend it enough. I don't have terribly high hopes that Aquarius is going to better Longworth's longform review of a Manson-Hollywood relationship whose toxicity came from both sides. But the mere fact of Manson, that he could do what he did unchecked for so long, that he's still alive at this writing, that he really is a cockroach -- useless except to denote uncleanliness and to serve as a symbol of unwelcome durability -- that someone in Wilson's circle could have spared lives by squashing, is full of narrative potential. I hope Aquarius knows what to do with it.

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