NBC’s AQUARIUS, created by John McNamara, is an interesting example of television writing and worth examining as a learning tool. The series has mixed reviews from viewers and low viewer ratings, but surprisingly it has been renewed for a second season, however, as of October 1, 2016, the series has been cancelled. This doesn’t come as a surprise to me. I didn’t anticipate a second season, and here’s why;
The show has major character, plot and tone issues that will keep it from ever having a strong foothold. The ‘idea’ of AQUARIUS is timely, and ambitious, but the execution is sloppy and forced.
David Duchovny is a fine actor who I thoroughly enjoy watching. However, as Hodiak, the open-minded, alcoholic, politically correct, patriotic, friend-to-all detective, Duchovny has nothing to bite into and deliver. The character is flat. He’s even repeating lines from Californication, which were wonderfully entertaining the first time, but the second time around feel stale. As the lead character, whose p-c attitude the audience relates to, Hodiak fetters from misdirection, and maybe miscasting. He casually investigates murders, solving them with magical brilliance and making sure the bad guy goes down by breaking the rules, for all the right reasons.
Towards the end of the season he says to the only female police officer whose testimony he needs to put away a cop-killer, “When are you going to stop trying to be one of us, and be one of us?” She immediately agrees to lie. Guilt is a powerful tool, but we just skipped several emotional steps because the writers need to get us to the next plot point.
I applaud the desire to create a multidimensional character who morally contradicts himself, but the lack of emotional honesty produces an unbelievable, and boring character. While not all of the characters try to be as morally ambiguous, they have other issues.
The in-the-closet bi/gay powerful attorney, Kenny, who is having an affair with Manson, is crying one minute, brandishing a shotgun another and literally writing his daughter off with legal emancipation another. As bland as Hodiak is, Kenny is an emotionally floundering mess. His character (as written) flies from one extreme to another, bypassing the human emotional growth process, or at least taking every third step because something needs to happen to keep the story moving.
Manson is holding a devastating secret over Kenny, and his law partner’s legal heads. But our brilliant lawyers, who are capable of murder, never think to kill Manson to remove the threat. Nor do they realize that if they go down, so does Manson. Oh, the writers tried to solve this by creating a romance between Kenny and Manson, but before the show starts, the romance had died and Manson was taboo. It never occurred to Kenny to off Manson then, or remove the body from where they had hidden it? It’s hard to believe these lawyers are still in business, but their political ambition is fierce, so fierce in fact that Kenny basically lets Manson, his partner in crime, keep his 16 year-old daughter.
As a parent, I have to call this character action what it is—absolute crap. Unless Kenny is a starving hyena, no father in his position would turn his back on his child so quickly, so easily and with so little emotional turmoil. I don’t care how horny or ambitious he is. Emma, named Cherry Pop by Manson, is Kenny’s sweet, innocent daughter who kicks the show off when she doesn’t come home. Enter Hodiak, an old boyfriend of Emma’s mom. You see, Kenny can’t afford to have his image tarnished in the public forum so Emma’s disappearance needs to stay on the down-low. But with all of Hodiak’s amazing crime-solving abilities, he’s unable to find Emma for quite a few episodes. Long enough for Manson to do a bit of effective brain-washing.
However, Emma isn’t as naive as she appears, and we watch her vacillate between concerned questioning looks and peace and love smiles. Emma has more emotional believability as a confused young girl, but her shallow complaints about her mom make us question why? Why doesn’t she want to go home? What is so bad at home? It doesn’t make sense. The writers try to explain it away, but the only thing we saw at the beginning of the show were her parents arguing. At least at home she wasn’t molested, forced to sleep with strangers, forced to steal or go hungry.
At one point, Emma challenges her mother, “You can’t go a day without calling me that… baby.” Perhaps this cherubic nickname is the cause of Emma’s upset? More importantly, I see the writing in this dialogue and while I believe the writers are trying to dig into a struggle between a controlling mother and a daughter who is tired of being controlled, the dialogue comes off as immature and off target.
Towards the end of the season, Manson goes off on his cult and he demands everyone take two “smiley faces” (acid). Emma speaks up and Manson yells even louder at the backtalk. A scene later, Emma, wearing the innocent dress she first met Manson in, drops the two smiley face papers into the dirt and walks away from the hippie compound. We think, great, this kid is finally taking some action rather than hanging out and waiting for her dad to show up, screw Manson and drive away without talking to her. But the next episode, she’s back at the compound.
This is a huge jump in character action and it makes no sense. Why have her gain insight and emotional growth, represented by her leaving, just to have her come back? It’s these jumps in character action that scream inauthenticity.
And then there’s Charles Manson. The real Manson passed away in May 2015, coincidentally the same month that Aquarius premiered. The timing is impeccable, and probably orchestrated. I would have been disgusted if Manson were still alive to watch a show about himself, albeit, he’s drawn as a horribly despicable person with some kind of magnetic charm that only works on young women, and Kenny. Almost nobody stands up to Manson. Perhaps it’s because he’s crazy, and mercurial, because it’s not his brawn or his intelligence that allows him to intimidate so many. Perhaps that’s the one thing television can’t do — recreate real magnetism and charm.
Of course, Hodiak doesn’t fall for Manson’s bullshit, and eventually takes his momentary rage out on Manson. While it was great to finally see someone put Manson in his place, the action seemed way too big a character leap for Hodiak. The beating does initiate a string reaction from Manson, and he wants revenge. This plot line gives some momentum to the meandering story, but nobody is ever in much of a rush to get anything done.
A well-worn discussion about which is more important in a story — plot or character — can finally be answered here. Neither plot nor character is more important than the other, neither can exist without the other, and if one has issues, the other does too.
Since we know AQUARIUS has some serious character issues, and we know plot and character co-exist, lets take a look at the plot.
Part cop procedural, part serial, AQUARIUS attempts to fill their episodes with enough to keep their characters busy. I do not have a problem with this format, but in this case it’s not working. Lets examine why. Plot is what happens, and what happens is directly dictated by character action. The writers have filled the show with a band of disparate characters, all ready to generate conflict. The procedural cases involve some aspect of social tension, whether it’s the neighborhood with 10 black deaths, and only the white one is solved, or a black man is killed in Watts, and the Black Panthers condemn him because he straightened his hair like a white person.
The show has; blacks, whites, hispanics, female, gays, hippie, prostitutes, drugs, drunks and Viet Nam issues to explore, and it feels overwhelming. All the political tensions of 1967 focused in one little show. That’s the ambitious part. If these issues were presented in an organic manner, and not overdramatized so often, we would have the opportunity to experience the boiling tension of that time period much better. As it is, the writers offer up the political issue of the episode, over-dramatize it, then wrap it up. They do manage to hit the point home, like using a bat to beat it into our heads. For example, the issue starts with a comment about hispanics wanting more representation on the force. A few jokes are made about the cleaning lady’s and we move on. Soon, a newspaper guy has discovered that one of the detectives is actually hispanic, not Irish as he’s claimed to be.
This detective has been lying to his wife for ten years, and he’s horribly frightened to tell her the truth, but the newspaper guy plans to publish the truth regardless. The wife finds out, she’s furious, we’re told, and the hispanic detective shows up drunk, waving his weapon about, ready to kill himself. Hodiak talks him down, and we’re told he’ll get a couple of months of counseling.
Here’s the problem. The writers had not developed the hispanic detective’s character in previous episodes. There was never any foreshadowing of this issue coming up. The whole thing was convenient for the episode, and felt inauthentic. It’s no mistake that this time period is a bomb waiting to explode, and there are plenty of issues to examine, but the issues aren’t playing out in a way that feels natural. They feel forced on you like a tablespoon of fish oil. Perhaps the season wasn’t mapped out fully so setups could be placed throughout. This would have given much greater believability to the story lines.
The Manson story line feels the most authentic. His character doesn’t do much, but he’s always consistent. Through him, we’re getting an interesting look into the hippie, peace and love movement, albeit, Manson’s version was one of conniving manipulation, but not all his party friends are part of that. In general, the hippies are harmless, though the older detectives dislike them as much as they hate the blacks, the gays, and the single female police officer.
The tone is a major factor in our experience of this world, and had the writers walked a narrow line, rather than ambitiously tackle every political issue of 1967, the series might have felt more congealed. I think it’s admirable that the writers and the network took a chance on this show, but it felt like they broke mom’s favorite vase and put it back together with tape.
Solutions and take-away? Determine the tone. It will lead your every decision. Know your characters and let them grow naturally. Stay away from forced conflict and drama — which means you need characters who want the same thing, for different reasons and are willing to do just about anything to get it. Don’t try to shove a the kitchen sink into your purse.