Thursday, June 18, 2015

Charlie Don't Channel Surf: Aquarius

David Duchovny as Detective Sam Hodiak on NBC's Aquarius.

There’s a classic show business trick that producers and directors have sometimes stooped to when working on material with a central figure who, it’s feared, may seem too unusual or unsympathetic to seem “relatable” to the mass audience: miscast the role so ostentatiously that no one could ever believe that the person they’re watching really wants to do the things he’s doing, or believe the things he’s saying. Sometimes, this results in the star winning both popular and critical acclaim, and even awards, since a skilled performer being unconvincing in a big role is plainly acting his ass off. It certainly worked out well for William Hurt when he played a Latin American transvestite in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and for Meryl Streep as the sexually taunting, working-class free spirit Karen Silkwood; the makers of Bonfire of the Vanities were hoping it would work for them when they convinced the young Tom Hanks, with his vast reserves of likability and goofy Everydude aura, to impersonate Tom Wolfe’s arrogant, antiheroic Master of the Universe Sherman McCoy.

Now, on NBC’s Aquarius, we have David Duchovny, as Sam Hodiak, a rule-breaking, head-busting Los Angeles police detective in 1967, casting a cold eye on all the toxic spillover from the Summer of Love. Sam is meant to be an old-school cop with a racist streak, though he also seems to recognize his limitations and to be capable of overcoming them; although he does a double take when he sees that the shaggy-haired, new-style undercover (white) cop (played by Grey Damon) he’s been partnering with has a black wife, he’s protective of the couple when they’re picked on by racists in their new neighborhood. And in his exchanges with the excellent Gaius Charles (formerly Smash Williams on Friday Night Lights) as the representative of the local chapter of the Black Panther party, he mainly expresses frustration with the Panthers for discouraging black people from co-operating with police who are investigating murders in the community. Even when Sam is steamed, he doesn’t throw around racial epithets, and he’s clearly more evolved than the other cops who are his age or older, who can’t understand why he even bothers to investigate the murders of blacks and homosexuals, or why he encourages the token woman in the station house (Claire Holt) in thinking that she might someday be able to do more than make coffee.

Grey Damon and David Duchovny in Aquarius.
The makers of Aquarius were plainly trying to create a hero who would seem not quite of our time but modern enough for viewers to connect with, and though they couldn’t have known that their show would premiere at a time when the news channels are full of real-life scenes of contemporary white cops harassing and murdering black people for no good reason, the fact is that Sam comes across as more racially enlightened than most white cops in Obama’s America. Duchovny’s near-inability to deliver a line without an undercurrent of irony, which must at one point have seemed like a potentially useful tool for this assignment, just muddies things up: you can’t always tell whether Sam is doing a put-on for his co-workers’ benefit, or whether they’re meant to be in on the joke, or even whether it’s Sam who’s commenting on the situations he’s in or if it’s Duchovny just being Duchovny. Sam is definitely meant to be one of the guys, a team player and not one of the actor’s patented superior oddball outcasts. Team playing is not one of Duchovny’s strengths as an actor. And whoever decided it would be a good idea to have Sam’s son (Chris Sheffield) go AWOL from Vietnam and turn up babbling about the secrets he’s discovered about what’s really going on with the war—secrets that Sam fears will destroy the boy’s life he goes through with his threat to bring them to light—may not have thought through how weird it would look to have David Duchnovny trying to suppress the truth about a government conspiracy.

Even miscast, Duchovny can be fun to watch; some of his off-kilter line readings here are real keepers. (He’s actually more fun to watch here than he was in the long-running Showtime series Californication, where he played a smug hack writer and relentless pussy hound, living in the lap of luxury and judging everyone around him while claiming, unconvincingly, to be torn up about his own debauchery and the pain it caused to those around him; the problem there may have been that he was too well-cast.) The same cannot be said for Gethin Anthony, a pretty young British actor who plays Sam’s bête noire, one Charles Manson. Before it premiered, Aquarius was touted as “Fox Mulder Vs. Charles Manson,” which is a little misleading. This isn’t a miniseries but, at its core, a conventional cop show with a period setting and occasional appearances by actual historical figures (such as the martyred Mexican-American journalist Ruben Salazar, who turns up in one episode, threatening to out a Hispanic detective who’s been passing for white.) Manson is one of the regular characters. The teenage daughter (Emma Dumont) of one of Sam’s old girlfriends (Michaela McManus) has run away from home, and Sam is tasked with finding her. He tracks her back to Manson, who has taken the girl in and re-christened her “Cherry Pop.”

Gethin Anthony and Emma Dumont in Aquarius.
The show’s series-TV mechanics are never rustier than in its handling of Manson. Because Sam isn’t meant to be an incompetent detective, he finds the girl right away and returns her to her mother, but of course she keeps escaping and going back to Manson, so that he can remain in Sam’s orbit. And there isn’t anything Sam can really do to shut Manson down, because Manson has to keep working toward the events that, two years further down the line, will make him infamous. It’s easy to focus on the mechanics when Manson is onscreen, because it’s not as if you’re likely to be distracted by Anthony’s performance. He has none of the seedy, malignant, haunt-your-dreams magnetism of the genuine article, and though he does suggest a certain degree of megalomania, it’s the wrong kind; when Manson tries to break into the music business, it’s not readily clear why the executives who detect his charisma (and are impressed with the harem of teen supermodels he’s erected around himself) are so wary of doing business with him. It’s 1967 on the West Coast: the man we see here can’t be that much harder to deal with than Stephen Stills. (He also has deep connections: this alternate-universe pretty-boy Manson is revealed to have a number of heavy hitters—including Brian F. O’Byrne as the teenage runaway’s father, a big player in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign—under his control, through blackmail or the sheer power of his sexual magnetism. The 1976 TV film Helter Skelter, which was based on a book by the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and was told from his point of view, is so sensationalistic and so unsympathetic to counterculture sensibilities that it’s like a very special lost episode of the ‘60s Dragnet series, but it features a much more convincing performance by Steve Railsback as Manson (especially in his speech to the court), and in its square way, it inadvertently gives you a much stronger sense of just how unsettling the ‘60s must have felt to middle-aged Americans who didn’t understand why the world had to change.

Aquarius is notable for the way NBC is trying to use its distribution to adapt to the new-media landscape. Having premiered the first episode of this new “event series” just as the TV season that began in the fall of 2014 is shutting down, the network released the entire season for streaming at its website and at Hulu, as if it were some Netflix Original Series joint, for a four-week period. So viewers had the choice to binge-watch it or wait as the episodes are rolled out, on a weekly basis, at their home planet over the course of the summer. The show probably looks better viewed old-school, because it’s an old-school show, conventional in format and hardly radical in style or sensibility but trying to do something different in terms of subject matter. It might not seem as disappointing if it weren’t the work of John McNamara, whose track record as a TV producer-creator includes a number of memorably weird, notably short-lived series. His most fabled credit is Profit (1996), a wonderfully heartless spin on the corporate soap opera genre whose sociopathic title character was explicitly depicted as a pure product of television, and not just because his name was a nod to the classic first season of Wiseguy.

Eight episodes of Profit were produced; only half of them ran during the show’s original network run, but the series was later replayed on cable and released on DVD; some of his more recent series, such as the gleefully amoral romp Vengeance Unlimited and the stylish investigative series Eyes, were almost as good but haven’t enjoyed the same cultish afterlife. With Aquarius, McNamara has more backing from the network than his shows have ever had before, but he hasn’t taken advantage of the changes in what’s considered acceptable in storytelling on network series TV to play with the form and take the kind of chances he did in a whole string of flops. Maybe Aquarius’s compromises represent a temporary holding pattern, or maybe he’s gotten too tired to try to come up with another Profit, which a channel like HBO or FX might be eager to snap up now. I hope it’s the latter, because with razor-tipped entertainments like The Strain and Fargo on commercial TV, this would be a hell of a time for someone like John McNamara to throw in the towel and join the ranks of burnouts who are too smart for what they’re doing.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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