Monday, 1 June 2015

TV Review | Aquarius | Everybody's Been Burned & The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game

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The summer of 2015 is officially the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and it hasn't disappointed.

via NBC

Aquarius - created by John McNamara - was originally an idea to get McNarma out of television. In this Hollywood Reporter article, he states that he'd been doing television for 30 years and was becoming sick of it. He originally wanted to capture the Manson story in a quintet of novels, but he wouldn't have been able to capture the essence of the 60s through the music - which in turn has become an integral part of the show. Aquarius was originally pitched to an undisclosed cable company, but they didn't pick it up.

Instead, McNamara went to David Duchovny's manager Melanie Green, saying that he had "a script that is the perfect evolution for David and his career". Duchovny later agreed to star in the show, and now with Duchovny attached McNamara pitched it again as a 13-episode straight-to-series. NBC was eventually the network to pick the show up, due to its dark subject matter being the ultimate companion for their popular gruesome television series Hannibal, which has suited them perfectly as they are now set to air back to back starting on June 4th.

NBC is also taking another gamble with the series, by releasing all the episodes on and Hulu (and eventually iTunes and in Europe) a day after the two-hour premiere. NBC is still going to air the show in its timeslot on Thursday nights throughout the summer, alongside Season 3 of Hannibal. The main reasoning of this VOD release being that NBC is following in the footsteps of sites like Netflix, releasing a whole series at one time for everyone's binge watching needs. Which is pretty relevant with this show. Once you end episode three, you're hooked.

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Aquarius follows Los Angeles police sergeant Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) in 1967, amid the midst of the swinging sixties. Hodiak has been requested in an off-the-books investigation by his ex-girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus) to find her missing daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont). Who unbeknownst to them has run off to a hippie commune run by none other than the prolific Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) - before he and 'the Manson family' committed the Tate-LaBianca murders of 1971.

Hodiak partners up with Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), an undercover officer who dresses and behaves like a hippie to fit in with suspects which enable him to question them without realizing he's a cop. Through this setup, there are two main storylines of Aquarius. That of the Los Angeles Hollywood Precinct in which Hodiak and Shafe are orientated and the commune in which Manson and his family live in peace and harmony. Both storylines are seen through the eyes of two characters - Sam Hodiak and Emma Karn - that don't know what to make of the situations that they're in (that being the 60s for Hodiak and the commune for Emma), much like we don't as an audience.

Aquarius uses Charles Manson as the hook, but the show focuses more on the 60s in general rather than how Manson and the family planned the crimes they eventually committed. The point of Aquarius is to show how the utopian flower power of 60s ended abruptly and gave birth to the darkness that was thrust upon the 70s. Manson is needed here as he was a huge catalyst for that, along with events such as the Vietnam War, the African-American Civil Rights movement, the increase in violent crimes and other events such as the Stones at Altamont. If you want to tell that story, you need Manson to be involved.

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Duchovny strives as police sergeant Sam Hodiak - fitting nicely into the evolution of memorable character portrayals that he has already garnered in his career. And it's safe to say that Hodiak is going to be up there with his legendary portrayals of Hank Moody and Fox Mulder. Even in the opening of the episode, Hodiak already has character development right off the bat from 'losing' his keys (they're hiding out of sight on a desk - something we can all relate to), resulting in him hot-wiring his car. Which we can already sense that is probably a recurring thing.

Hodiak is a World War II veteran and 50s noir cop working in the swinging sixties and has no idea how to react to it all. He's out of place and out of touch with the current generation and doesn't know what to make of it. Duchovny adds his usual wry sense of humor to the mix but adds a completely new level of acting for himself through Hodiak's hard hitting edge. He's a cop who is physical first and verbal later. His brutality helps make his point by putting fear into his suspects, especially when they start to piss him off.

Aquarius gives Hodiak an extremely good match in terms of Grey Damon's Brian Shafe. Shafe is a great introduction to Damon, as I haven't seen him act in anything before. This could totally be his breakthrough, he gives a stellar performance throughout the first episode. Especially acting against Duchovny, they complement each other extremely well. You can tell that they already have a deep chemistry straight off the bat as actors, making Hodiak and Shafe's partnership - and ultimately friendship - believable. 

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Shafe is the opposite of Hodiak, however. He's an undercover cop, fitting in with the hippie aesthetic to try and infiltrate the Sunset Strip drug trade, which means no one ever believes him when he reveals that he's a cop. If Hodiak is there to show how out of touch both he and we as an audience are with the 60s, Shafe is there to express the outrage of the time - especially when we're first introduced to him and he doesn't agree with the force the police are putting against the teenagers protesting the 10pm curfew. He wants to change the way the law enforcement deal with everything. He doesn't agree with the generation of cops before him and the way they handle things, which he makes extremely clear to Hodiak on multiple occasions once they're paired up together. But it's Hodiak and Shafe's partnering that further cements the idea of there being a huge gap between Hodiak and the time he's in, and why he feels so out of place. Both from his surroundings and the generation proceeding him. "The love generation", Hodiak says. "You kids think you invented everything".

Aquarius doesn't just give us the two leads, it gives an array of supporting characters that after a second watch you become to appreciate even more. Characters such as Mike Vickery (Jason Ralph), an associate of Shafe in his drug investigations. He gives great comedic relief when it's not from Duchovny or Damon. Especially when Hodiak and Shafe arrive at Mikey's house trying to find his stash of weed. 

Charmain Tully (Claire Holt) also stands out in this episode, even though she's not in it as much as the two leads. She's the only female police officer in the Hollywood precinct, trying to make her way during a time where women weren't respected as officers. When she is there she steals the show, especially when herself and Shafe go undercover to the commune. Hodiak, Shafe, Mikey and Charmain make the show; it goes with what Duchovny has been saying in a lot of interviews recently, that it's not all about Manson. It's about how the 60s changed from the swinging sixties to the darkness of the 70s, and how these characters are dealing with this shift.

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We also have an old flame of Hodiak's - Grace Karn. Duchovny and Michaela McManus have great chemistry here, as they're able to convincingly show that there's obviously still love there and that Grace trusts Hodiak enough to find her daughter.

Both begin to realize that her husband - Ken Karn - is hiding something to do with this disappearance, and it doesn't help in the fact that he's a lawyer who as we know towards the end of the episode - has something to do with Manson.

And then there's Charles Manson himself. We meet Manson through Ken and Grace's daughter - Emma. Manson knows Emma, through Ken previously being his lawyer. He seems important to Manson, and convincing Emma to go with him could be blackmail - although Ken doesn't really seem that fussed when Emma goes missing. Only what harm it'll do to his campaign for Nixon. Emma eventually joins Manson at his commune with the rest of his girls, showcasing how naive she is in comparison - especially when she seems to think that Manson is in love with her just by the way he's looking at her. It's his way of seducing everyone, making the girls fall in love with him so they can do his bidding without second guessing him. 

Now, Manson's goals seem to be peace, love, sticking it to the man and getting big in the music business - the darker side of the hippie movement beginning to be uncovered. He is ultimately the catalyst that ends it. He's delusional, and he spirals further and further down this delusion as the episode's progress. 

However, there's something off with Gethin Anthony's performance of Manson. I know Manson was extremely manipulative, but he takes it way too far at points. Maybe it's the southern drawl or the over-acted projection of lines, I don't know. It just doesn't feel believable at points and ends up being embarrassing to watch. Or that could just be the beauty of Anthony's portrayal, as you're not meant to like Manson, you're meant to be creeped out by him and despise him.

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In terms of the practical side of this premiere episode, the cinematography is extremely detailed. You get the 60s vibes straight away, through the lighting, staging and extensive set design. Especially during the day at places like the commune and the Karn's household, with the lingering yellow hue shrouding the frame. It serves the story-line extremely well, along with the music and costume design. It oozes the 60s.

Speaking of the music, McNamara succeeds in using the music as an overlying narrative for the show completely in this episode. Sometimes it's the music that speaks for the plot more than the characters do. Although sometimes it gets a little overwhelming (there are 21 songs in this episode) it's different to have actual 60s music in the background rather than relying on a score. And the selection of music is what I was hoping for, which I've made a playlist for on Spotify for each episode which will be linked on each of these reviews.

Where this episode lacks is putting too much into a 40-minutee slot. Especially in terms of characters; who they are and what purpose they have to the story-line. It was only on my second watch that I started to pick up on who everyone was and what their role was in terms of what was happening.

And in terms of story-line, whenever Damon or Duchovny weren't on screen - together or apart - I began to lose interest. They're both the pull of the show, and the Manson family aren't really that captivating in the pilot - more annoying than anything. 

But that doesn't stop the first episode of Aquarius being a feat in itself. I haven't come across a pilot so thought out as this in years. McNamara knows what story he wants to tell, and succeeds in doing so with an
outstanding cast, vibrant cinematography and a killer soundtrack. 

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After Ken's confrontation with Manson at the end of the previous episode, he's able to convince the mayor and the police commissioner to get Hodiak to back down from the Emma case. For the moment, anyway. Instead, he and Shafe investigate the murder of a white woman in a black neighborhood, with Hodiak's suspicions pointing to the husband as the murderer; but the husband's adamance that someone in the neighborhood committed the crime. 

The reasons in which Hodiak is asked to back down from the case is that he's onto something. He knows that Manson is linked to Ken through him being an ex-client of his. But at least through this lull of the Emma Karn case we're able to dig deeper into Hodiak's character, especially through his straight-to-the-point detective work when it comes to trying to get the husband to confess to the murder by arresting Mr. Carter - a leader of the Nation of Islam - which doesn't sit too well with Shafe as he feels as though he's using Mr. Carter because of his race. Which showcases how dangerous Hodiak can be, but he always believes he has a moral understanding behind his motives. 

Although, dangerous is probably an understatement in the way that Hodiak carries himself. All he has to do to get someone to talk (in Mikey's case anyway) is to just stand there and start to take his jacket off. And by going by what I previously mentioned from being physical first and verbal later, through breaking the drug dealer's hand and writing snitch on his forehead. He's brutal but he gets the job done.  

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This investigation also gives depth to Shafe - especially through how this case is affecting him which we and Hodiak don't understand until he introduces Hodiak to his family, as he lives in an all-white neighborhood with a colored wife and child. Which is when Hodiak realizes why Shafe wasn't agreeing with the way in which he was handling the investigation. It's things like this that Shafe enables to teach Hodiak things about the era that he's struggling to come to terms with, making him a better cop and human being in the long run.

Along with this investigation, we're also introduced to Hodiak's son, Walt. Walt is supposed to be serving in the Vietnam War, but he's become AWOL from the combat zone - which isn't a good thing. He's a deserter, and could end up going to prison. The reason he's back is because he's managed to be sent stateside - and this can only happen if one of your parents is dying. Which becomes obvious to Hodiak as to who has done this - his alcoholic ex-wife, Opal. She sent the letter to get Walt back by pretending she was sick and dying. Opal has no consideration as to what she's done to their son, as Hodiak might have to turn Walt in. 

Walt is another great example of the generation gap that Hodiak is dealing with, with Hodiak stating that "It's a little different from my day" to Walt when talking about the war, with Walt replying, "Lots of things are". 

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Hodiak and Grace's relationship seems to be building stronger throughout these two episodes, and that love is still there. Both got married to different people, but don't know why. Grace got pregnant with Emma, so had to stay with Ken. Hodiak, on the other hand, can't remember why he married Opal. We also learn that Hodiak doesn't drink anymore. As pointed out by Grace, he doesn't tend to make the right decisions whilst under the influence. 

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Underneath all the investigations and family drama between Hodiak and Shafe, Manson is beginning to sink deeper into his dream of becoming "bigger than The Beatles". You can tell this is what sets him off the edge as he can't reach his dream, not matter how hard he tries. We also learn that Manson and Ken have an extremely weird (and I assume sexual) relationship. It has something to do with Ken being able to give him money to make a demo; which is probably from Ken managing to get Manson out of a previous crime and now Manson is using him.

Again, music is extremely important in this episode. More so than the last, especially when Emma is stealing clothes and the song is describing her every move in the background. Then 'Daydream Believer' is used as an amazing piece of juxtaposition in the background whilst Manson beats the shopkeeper up after catching Emma stealing.

Speaking of this scene, the editing whenever Manson comes on screen is amazing. The footage slows down, making him captivate to the audience and to his followers, especially Emma in this scene as this is the first time she's doing what Manson tells her to do. Especially with the "bite the hand that frees you" line, showing how manipulative he can be through the way he says his words.

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Although, some of the things Manson says I still can't take seriously. Like how out of proportion he takes things when Emma states there isn't anything to eat at the commune, or how he reacts to the assistant on the phone at Ken's law firm. 

Also, there are way too many characters being introduced within the first two episodes. I just about got used to the ones introduced in the first episode, but adding Opal and Walt so early on is hard to take on in relation to what is trying to be focused upon. It begins to flow as the series progresses, but there is a lot of information overload in the first two episodes. 

But that doesn't take a lot away from this episode, as it allows insight into how the show is going to juggle actual police cases around the ongoing search for Emma, never leaving an episode uninteresting. Even though it can get a bit overwhelming at points.

As a whole, this episode isn't as great as the opener to the series was, but still stands on its own as an ever opening portal not only to the history of the 60s, but an episode of depth in terms of plot and characters.

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