All in the Family: Inside NBC's 'Aquarius'

Aquarius
Gethin Anthony stars as Charles Manson, pictured here among his "family" members, in "Aquarius" on NBC. Vivian Zink for NBC

An old saying goes that the lost souls who descended upon San Francisco during the Summer of Love came with a flower in hand and left a few months later with a gun. It's a reference to the rampant violence that coexisted with all that peace and love on Haight-Ashbury's streets back in 1967, but also functions as an apt metaphor for the '60s: a time of freedom and frolic, carelessness and calamity. Sure, back then love was (allegedly, sporadically) free—but that ethos was sullied by the fact that many jerks used it as an excuse for rape. And blacks in America still couldn't eat at those recently desegregated lunch counters without fearing a billy club.

Still, the decade's sartorial splendor and groovy jams continue to be recycled more than those of any other era—scan any summer music festival crowd for proof. That might be because many of those who tout the decade as the pinnacle of artistic experimentation and social progress didn't have to live through it.

NBC's drama Aquarius, which premiered May 28, depicts the problems and possibilities that pinballed around in those uncertain years. The show stars David Duchovny as the hard-boiled vet-turned-LAPD Sergeant Sam Hodiak, and Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones) as Charles Manson, the man who, in Duchovny's words, "embodies the light and dark of what the '60s represent, and conveniently encompasses both halves we could have taken as a country out of that." Hodiak—pursuing an old flame's daughter (Emma Dumont) who ran away from home to join the Manson family—goes after Charlie with his boyish undercover partner Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), with whom he often butts his flattop head.

On the surface, Aquarius plays like a painstakingly produced period piece that tracks how Manson and his "family" of brainwashed hippies came to commit some of the most gruesome and inexplicable crimes of the 20th century, the Tate-La Bianca murders. But as in Mad Men, the context is just as important, just as interesting, as the story of this very mad man. Aquarius weaves in several subplots that illustrate the era's cultural renaissance and rupture, and show how little has changed. "Black power, drug legalization...the issues are the same," Duchovny says. "Isn't it quaint they were involved in those issues?"

For example, contemporary feminism owes a debt to the second-wave feminism of the 1960s. In Aquarius, gender equality finds its mouthpiece in Charmain Tully (Claire Holt), an ambitious LAPD officer who has bled for the blue in a shootout but is relegated to filing papers and making coffee for the male officers at the station. The show also shows a nation in the throes of the civil rights movement, with tense scenes depicting confrontations between the Black Panthers and the largely white LAPD that could have been posted on Vine this morning. Holt recalls that "[when] we were shooting footage, what we would see on the news would be so similar," she says. "The hairstyles would be different, but the scenes were the same."

It's perhaps not a coincidence that Aquarius picks up on the thread that its East Coast counterpart, Mad Men, started during its recent series finale: When you have found success and comfort, how do you cope when everything begins to change? "I feel like we keep coming back to the '60s as a country, as a world, because there was social unrest all over the globe," Duchovny says. "I think we're fascinated with how we got to where we are now, and a lot of what we do now is in reaction to the '60s.

The show's creator, John McNamara, tells Newsweek that Aquarius was an opportunity to re-examine what stuck from the 1960s and what didn't. "I really feel like it can take a long time for a culture like ours to look at itself honestly and say, 'What was Vietnam? What were the civil rights wars about? And have things gotten worse, better or stayed the same?' In many cases, sadly, they have stayed the same." Case in point: McNamara says that Aquarius's police brutality episode was written well before the Ferguson riots broke out in July 2014, and the day the show was casting for that episode when Ferguson blew up.

Manson, McNamara says, "is both a part of the '60s and [someone] who ruined the '60s." Manson and his family embody how a person or a group of people can grasp a promising concept—the idea of free love—and pervert it. "It was the turning ugly of the dream," says Aquarius executive producer Marty Adelstein, who grew up in 1960s Los Angeles. For Duchovny, "Manson is Woodstock, peace and love, McCarthy, and also Altamont, the violence, the darkness of the '60s. He's this portal."

And nearly 50 years later, we are stuck in a 1960s nostalgia echo chamber perpetuated by fashion throwbacks and garage rock bands refusing to use anything but fuzz pedals. Aquarius does a fine job of visually illustrating the coolness of this era though; so much so that some viewers may be inclined to don fringe vests and lounge poolside while humming along to "Psychotic Reaction."

But to take that trip would be, well, tripping up. Aquarius demonstrates that while it's still fun to turn on and tune into the past, one can't completely drop out and ignore social ills. At least today, technology enables us to address those issues in real time and on a global scale, prompting dialogue instead of a prolonged silence amidst lingering dread. It's no longer, as Joan Didion once wrote about the '60s, an era in which "everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable."