Television

'Aquarius' Complicates Racism in the 1960s and, Maybe, Today

For all its wearying focus on Charles Manson, the show has other, better ideas, including an acknowledgement, via an earnestly outraged NOI member, that black lives might matter.


Aquarius

Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET
Cast: David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, Grey Damon, Emma Dumont, Brian F. O'Byrne, Michaela McManus
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: NBC
Creator: John McNamara
Air date: 2015-05-28
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"You are a living lie. I am the truth who will burn your world to the ground." It's striking, this pronouncement by Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles), and when he makes it to LA Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), you're inclined to believe him. This is because, just a couple of hours into Aquarius, you've already seen Sam lie quite a bit. It's part of the job. "Cops can lie," he tells a murder suspect who's signed a confession based on Sam's deception during an interrogation. Sam is, per Duchovny's usual characters, always laconic and strangely wise, and you believe him even though you know you probably shouldn't.

The slippage between truth and lies is at center of Aquarius, set in Los Angeles 1967, which sets weary Vietnam War veteran Sam against none other than Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony). As the show spends its first two hours cutting between cop and criminal, one working the case of a missing 16-year-old and the other seducing her, not incidentally with the most banal of lies ("They can't see who we really are: we're special, we're powerful, and we can change everything"), it pauses to introduce Bunchy, a member of the Nation of Islam, bow-tied and adamant. Bunchy brings another dimension to the proceedings, an intervention plainly calculated and not precisely convincing.

While you understand that Bunchy is right about Sam -- and the system of policing he represents, however reluctantly -- the show is less obvious about how it's using Bunchy. Earnest as he arrives at a crime scene to protect black citizens from the cops' questions, he occasions a standoff pretty much immediately. Sam says he's interfering with an investigation, while Bunchy suggests that he is, rather, pushing back against the cops by definition: "You are an occupying force," he says. "Until you withdraw, we will not help you." The language speaks to 1967 and today too, of course, alerting you that Aquarius means to be topical as well as nostalgic and vaguely, if guardedly, referential (the show calls itself "Inspired in part by historical events"). The cops here don't have tanks or other military surplus, but they do have attitude, a culture based on their perception of perpetrators as enemies.

Such perception is familiar to viewers of most cop shows, but Aquarius complicates it even as it confirms it. Manson and the show's other, more generic outlaws appear easily condemnnable; Charlie, for instance, dominates his sexual interludes with his interchangeable, long-haired and bell-bottomed "Manson Girls" as well as a frankly brutal homosexual liaison. However, Bunchy provides an alternative view.

Another alternative view is intermittently offered by Sam's new partner, the scruffy, younger-generation, undercover designate Brian (Grey Damon). He resents the older cop's habitual lying to suspects and treating black witnesses as "dumb spades". He has reasons that are a bit overstated, but they do suggest someone on the writing staff wants to provide Sam's apparent display of racism with a context. (It's safe to say that Sam can only be more complicated than he looks at any given moment.)

That said, Sam and Brian share an inclination to menace and assault odious adversaries, and the show supports their decisions in this regard, ensuring these adversaries look like they deserve whatever violence they incur. It's only right, the cops reason without saying so, to punish bad guys. As the system surrounding them and that they represent is so inept and corrupt, they resort to slamming heads to keep order amidst the many signs of disorder here, from anti-war protests to the crimes committed by the military in Vietnam, both noted not quite in passing on background televisions.

That Bunchy has and makes visible another idea about how bad guys might be defined suggests, however briefly, that the show acknowledges that black lives might matter, even in a network's period cop show. NBC's release of all 13 episodes of Aquarius to VOD as soon as the show premieres on 28 May means you'll be able to see how far this acknowledgment might carry right away.

The series opens on the girl, Emma (Emma Dumont), who will become Sam's case, sneaking out of her parents' house at night as 16-year-olds tend to do. As she slips away, to be picked up by Charlie, the soundtrack plays one of its many era-defining tunes, this one the Who's "I Can See for Miles". The point would be, no surprise, that no one is seeing far at all, no one imagines the coming fall of Saigon or the Manson murders, the building civil rights movement or women's lib or any of it. The show supposes you can see this, in the sense that you know the history that comes after 1967, and that you can appreciate that even in this fictionalized form, that history bodes ill.

Aquarius isn't quite history, but it also isn't precisely now, or even accurate in either case. What you can see is not so much "truth" as it is versions of truth. What you can see, in Bunchy's adamant assertion of himself as truth, is the possibility that another story exists and might be told. When Sam arrests him and uses Bunchy as a means to get another case closed, when he dismisses Bunchy as so much trouble to be overcome on the way to doing his job, he doesn't see what you might, that the truth, if not out there, as The X-Files' Mulder once held, might be elsewhere.

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