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TV Series Review

Each age comes with its own nightmares. In the Age of Aquarius, one was Charles Manson.

It's 1967, and Los Angeles is in the grip of change. While the Vietnam War rages halfway around the world, youth at home are fighting against traditional authority. Blacks push for rights long denied. It's an exciting time for some—a time to embrace love and peace and groovy music. But there's a dark side to all that. And while the '60s didn't create Charles Manson exactly, the decade did provide the greenhouse in which he grew, the environment through which he spread. He believed in free love and anti-materialism and the power of music—specifically his music—to change the world. And he convinced his "family," a harem of women who hung on his every word and note, that it would happen.

Emma Karn is one such young woman in NBC's Aquarius, the network's fictionalized snapshot of Manson and the era. A 16-year-old runaway, the girl is easily swayed by Manson's personality and promises. She finds happiness in his presence, she believes. It's at least a kind of happiness she didn't feel when living with her mom and dad.

Her parents, obviously, want her back. But there are complications, given Dad's political ambitions. In desperation, Mom turns to Sam Hodiak, L.A. detective and an old flame of hers, to track down Emma off the books. But Sam, sporting a crew cut and black tie, can't exactly blend in with the city's hippie culture. So he partners with young, hip narcotics officer Brian Shafe, a guy who sometimes has more in common with the folks he's arresting than the boys in blue he's working with. Together, Sam and Brian just might be able to track down the girl and deal with this Manson guy before he does something really despicable.

We know, of course, that Manson wasn't dealt with, and that fact lends an air of fatalism to this taut NBC series, which is being unspooled an episode a week on TV while at the same time arriving in toto on the network's app and iTunes. But this isn't a show to just casually binge watch. Because NBC plays up both the tawdry sex and the unimaginable violence that consumes Manson's story.

Many of the episodes sport a TV-MA rating, and those that are rated TV-14 aren't noticeably better. The series is filled with sexually charged content—from heterosexual to same-sex couplings, from suggested rapes to disturbing orgies—as intimate, moody camerawork takes us ever closer to the action. People are maimed and murdered, too, with the haze of marijuana smoke swirling around it all, along with the lightheaded buzz of guzzled martinis.

NBC might argue that such "realism" simply reflects the salacious situations in which the show is set. The 1960s brought with it dissolving norms, after all, as society itself seemed to be crumbling into a more free (read: lawless) state. Ironically, it was television in that time that was governed by some of the land's strictest rules. The age of the counterculture was also the age of The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—as radical as television got back in the day—seems so wonderfully innocent now.

Our current television epoch is, meanwhile, glorying in an almost countercultural revolution itself—pushing harder and harder toward the status of anything goes. And while this newfound freedom, some would say, is a catalyst for unprecedented breakthroughs in storytelling, it brings with it nightmares of its own. And you need look no farther than Aquarius to find some of them.


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Episode Reviews

Aquarius: May 28, 2015



Readability Age Range



David Duchovny as Detective Sam Hodiak; Grey Damon as Brian Shafe; Gethin Anthony as Charles Manson; Emma Dumont as Emma Karn; Claire Holt as Charmain Tully; Chance Kelly as Ed Cutler; Michaela McManus as Grace Karn; Brían F. O'Byrne as Ken Karn






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On Video

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Paul Asay

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