It's hard to mention the name Charles Manson without instantly thinking about the late 1960s murders carried out by Manson's followers. But NBC's new Manson-inspired drama series Aquarius has more than murder on its mind.
In fact, the show — which has been billed as a "13-episode event series" — ends its first season more than a year before the Manson family murders even took place. And for executive producer John McNamara, who has built out a six-season story arc for the show, Manson is not the real draw here.
"It was so different being 40 in 1967 than it is being 40 today," McNamara tells TVGuide.com. "Today a 40-year-old and 20-year-old listen to the same music, they like the same movies, they dress pretty much like each other, but in the '60s, a 40-year-old has a tie and jacket and a shirt, and a 20-year-old had a dashiki and an Afro and wanted to kill the 40-year-old. I hadn't really seen a movie or a TV show about being a cop in that particular specific era. Usually stories about the '60s take the point of view of the radical left, the hippie movement or music, but I've never seen a guy with a crew cut in a modern retelling of that era. So, that was the POV, and that was the entire reason to do the show."
The man with the crew cut is Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), a homicide detective who, as a favor to former flame Grace (Michaela McManus), investigates the disappearance of Grace's daughter Emma (Emma Dumont). And it just so happens that Emma has run away with a silver-tongued wannabe musician named Charlie Manson (Game of Thrones' Gethin Anthony).
"I had the idea of making the nemesis Manson, and he fatefully got out of jail during the summer of love," McNamara says. "He went into jail in 1960 when the country still looked like the '50s. When Manson got out in '67, he was as shocked as anyone at what had become of the country. He loved the free love movement and he really was a criminal. When I did the research on Manson, I realized he was not a hippie who became a criminal. He was a criminal who disguised himself as a hippie, so his ultimate fate was almost predestined by his character or lack thereof."
However, the conflict of the show isn't necessarily between the cop and the crook. Instead, Hodiak is railing against the new ideas of the younger generation. "I liked playing a character who didn't believe in any of that stuff," Duchovny says. "He's a World War II veteran and is already not a fan of the '60s, even before Manson came along. I like the tragic quality of the character because he thinks he's protecting a world, but the world he's protecting is already gone." Adds McNamara: "It's a costume party to him. He thinks that this is all fashion that he doesn't really understand or approve. ... [He] is asking himself one fundamental question: If this was the world today, why the f--- did I fight in World War II?"
As such, Hodiak's secret weapons are Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), a young undercover cop and Vietnam veteran who looks like a hippie but isn't, and female officer Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), both of whom help Hodiak infiltrate Manson's compound. "The common thread that unites everyone is they're all facing things that they never would've thought were even possible three years ago," McNamara says. "In a way, all the characters are either overtly or secretly thrilled by everything being a taboo that's being broken. Hodiak is probably the most reluctant to break taboos and the most reluctant to kind of shatter convention, but he's definitely also wading into the waters of the 60s in his own way."
However, Hodiak is also much more keenly aware that his pursuit of Manson is perhaps triggering Hodiak's own dark side. "He's not at all excited by this side of himself," Duchovny says. "What sets him apart from the other characters is he wants no part of going there because he knows exactly what's going to happen, and he won't be able to stop. He doesn't have any romance with the dark side. It's not romantic at all for him — it's the end of the world."
Even though the show plays out at times like any other cop show — but expect a few lesser engaging detours involving Shafe's surprising home life and Hodiak's son being AWOL from his own post in Vietnam — the series delivers the goods on Manson, even if he's not plotting to kill people just yet. "I think everyone is fascinated by a guy who has never been charged with or convicted of murder, but is probably the most famous mass murderer in America," McNamara says. "How did that happen? Where did he come from? How do those pieces come together? What was he like as a child? What was his upbringing like? I was able to get deep into his psychology and get an understanding of this notion that what he really was at the core was a pimp. He had a way to trigger someone else's insecurities and then get them to follow him because he appeared to be so confident and so knowing, and that was of course an act and an amazingly well-crafted psychopathic act.
"I think that we have as a culture, especially lately in movies, to say, 'Oh, he's a monster.' Manson is not a monster," McNamara continues. "Manson is a very ordinary person with extraordinary psychological problems and extraordinary charm and extraordinary drive who did monstrous, monstrous things. We can never forget he's not different than us in his DNA. He's not from Mars. He's not from Hell. He's a guy from Oklahoma, but, boy, did he make some bad, bad choices."
That said, McNamara insists he's not trying to change the way Manson is perceived. "I think the point of telling any story... is to have empathy, not sympathy for every character in the story," he says. "But I was highly aware that Manson represents possibly the darkest thread in the tapestry of the '60s, and also I believe personally that Manson single-handedly destroyed the 60s. Tate-LaBianca was the end of the '60s. It turned everything wonderful or explosive or radical or new or amazing into death, paranoia and murder."
Of course, knowing the history also puts a bit of bleakness over all of Hodiak and Shafe's efforts. After all, no matter what progress they make in their pursuit of Manson, they are doomed to fail. That's just fine by Duchovny. "I like that he can't win, that ultimately no matter what he does, he's not on the side of history," he says. "I like watching him make decisions, because it's not his fault. There's no way he could have seen what Manson was going to become. But his actions, because you know all the time where we're headed, they become poignant and weighted in a certain way that they wouldn't be if we didn't know that in '69 he was going to be responsible for killing a number of people."
Summer TV eye candy: Check out TV's hottest women
And that's ultimately why this story is about Hodiak, not Manson. "Every story is a story of futility. That's just the nature of human existence: We fail more than we succeed," McNamara says. "Ultimately, what this story's going to be about is redemption. It is ultimately a journey that Hodiak takes toward a final sense of self-awareness, of peace of mind. He's going to save the people he can save, and he's going to have to live with the fact that there are people he couldn't save.
"That's the real tragedy of Manson that I want to explore in the TV show — how many lives he really destroyed and what happens to those lives in the aftermath?" he continues. "How do you deal with that? Do you become bitter? Do you become homicidal? Do you become infected by his darkness and his hatred? Or do you move past that to a place of understanding? That's Hodiak's journey."
Aquarius' two-hour premiere airs Thursday at 9/8c. (Watch the trailer below.) Every episode of the first season will be available on the NBC app and on-demand on Friday, though the show will also air weekly.