NBC's 'Aquarius' a long strange trip to find Charles Manson

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David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak in "Aquarius."

David Duchovny, late of Showtime's Californication, makes a glorious return to broadcast TV in NBC's accomplished, if seriously strange, 13-episode 1960s-set police procedural, Aquarius.

A wild stew of fact and fiction, the one-season "event series" as the network bills it, tells the story of one of America's vilest - and most inscrutable - villains, Charles Manson.

The show premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday.

NBC is trying something new with Aquarius, taking a page from Netflix's playbook. On Thursday, the network also will make the entire series available via video on demand for one month after the premiere.

It depends on your temperament, but Aquarius is enjoyable either way. It's not a traditional mystery with cliffhangers and plot twists, the kind of show that is exciting because it demands you wait in anticipation for each installment. It's an epic, with real sweep and reach and making for perfect binge-watching.

Brit thesp Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones' Renly Baratheon) plays Manson in a refreshingly restrained performance. The story is set in 1967, just as Manson consolidates the Family, his gang of predominantly female acolytes and killers. Then 33, Manson had spent 17 years of his life behind bars. He was a violent criminal who capitalized on the hippie scene by reinventing himself as a free-love guru and singer.

Two years after Aquarius is set, in 1969, the group committed its most infamous crime: the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and three of her friends. They killed several others in the interim.

Though it blurs the line between real history and creative fancy, Aquarius is no sleazy psycho-of-the-week horror show.

Created by writer-producer John McNamara, best known for his lovely witness-protection drama, In Plain Sight, the series brings us into Manson's universe through one of his most recent recruits, 16-year-old Emma Karn (Emma Dumont).

She sneaks out to a party where she comes under Manson's spell. She doesn't return home.

After five days, Emma's mom, Grace (Michaela McManus), contacts ex-boyfriend and LAPD homicide detective Sam Hodiak (Duchovny), a hard-nosed World War II veteran with nothing but contempt for hippies.

Sam must investigate Emma's disappearance off the books. See, the girl is the child of Ken Karn (Brían F. O'Byrne) a power player in local Republican politics ("I have the [police] commissioner's home phone on my Rolodex, right next to the mayor's," he says at one point).

Aquarius uses the procedural format to intelligently dissect the conflict-ridden culture of the late 1960s. It subjects every group to scrutiny, including hippies, Black Panther militants, Nation of Islam leaders, and the police.

We'll leave it for the experts to decide how much Aquarius fudges the truth. As drama, it's gripping, disturbing, and rewarding.


TV REVIEW

Aquarius

Premieres 9 p.m. Thursday on NBC


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