Aquarius: Complete First Season Blu-ray Review

The gripping prequel to Charles Manson’s reign of terror in L.A. starring David Duchovny

Everyone knows the name of Charles Manson and his infamous Manson Family. One of the most notorious criminals of the Twentieth Century, Manson led his commune of hippies in a series of grisly killings in the L.A. area near the end of the 1960s. His murder of actress Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, scandalized Hollywood. NBC’s new series, Aquarius, operates as a prequel to those historical events. Seasoned homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) begins investigating Manson and his family of hippie followers when an old friend’s daughter becomes one of the deranged cult leader’s newest disciples. This first season is smart, engaging entertainment that beams with energy from its Summer of Love setting.

It is 1967 in L.A., the height of free love and the beginning of major social upheavals. L.A. detective Sam Hodiak is a strong, intelligent cop looking to do the right thing, even when that means bending a few rules. He’s a pragmatist aware the country is going through changes and simply wants to stay ahead of the curve. An old flame of Sam’s comes back into his life, Grace. Now married to a rich lawyer, Grace asks Sam to investigate her missing teen daughter, Emma (Emma Dumont). The sixteen-year-old Emma has fallen under the spell of Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony). This charismatic version of Manson is able to charm when necessary. Grace is married to Ken Karn (Brían F. O’Byrne), a closeted lawyer with ties to the Californian Republican Party. Not everything is initially what it seems on the surface between these people.

Actress Claire Holt, now freed from the CW, is a young female cop looking to make a name for herself despite the old boys’ club on the police force dismissing her ability. Sam takes a fatherly liking to her, guiding her through a series of increasingly dangerous missions. Sam also takes a young undercover cop under his wing, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon). Brian is a good cop with a rough edge, one that can blend in with the younger generation. He keeps his hair long and is willing to smoke a little dope to stay undercover.

The cult-leader has already amassed a house full of followers, including many young women. The commune is all about free love and espousing Charles’ hippie philosophies. Under the surface of the outwardly serene, Manson is a boiling sea of rage. He’s willing to hurt or discard anyone that gets in his way. Manson dreams of being a musician and pals around with the music industry. It’s a hopeless dream propped up by Manson “sharing” his women as favors to achieve what he desires. He wants to become more famous than the Beatles.

Filled with a groovy selection of popular tunes from the late Sixties, Aquarius uses the hits wisely. It is the perfect soundtrack for a gritty television drama set in this period. It is also great to see the return of David Duchovny back to network television in a dramatic role. The former X-Files star hasn’t lost any of his acting chops from being on Californication the last several years, a premium cable comedy.

The edgy nature of Aquarius is reflected in the challenging risks it takes, including tackling social issues and explicit sexuality. This home video version has additional footage and language than what was broadcast on NBC. What had pushed the envelope on broadcast becomes even more risqué, including the occasional four-letter obscenity and nudity.

It paints a superb portrait of how a penniless hustler like Manson could seduce so many into following him…

The season does heavily run with the rumors of Manson having been bisexual. Charles Manson used sex as leverage with people and Aquarius posits that included both men and women. The former male hustler may have well serviced men before forming his commune. Gethin Anthony plays Manson with a sexual swagger and charisma likely beyond historical reality. Aquarius is a dramatic, fictionalized telling of Charles Manson’s years before the horrific murders that made him famous. I wouldn’t take it as a documentary by any means.

The first half of the season is expertly managed as we learn more and more about the surprising connections between all of these characters. It paints a superb portrait of how a penniless hustler like Manson could seduce so many into following him, including the young Emma. Special mention should be made for Emma Dumont, who shines as the naive teen runaway. Season one of Aquarius is as much about her character’s journey than anything else, a wise storytelling move that pays dividends. If there are problems, the procedural undertones later in the season get overly predictable as the show tackles each kind of social issue from the late 1960s like some kind of check list. Women’s rights, gay rights, racial issues, a plodding arc about Vietnam; no stone is left unturned in season one.

Ambitious in scope, Aquarius is an edgy broadcast drama with the production values of a premium cable show. Star David Duchovny turns in an admirable performance but Aquarius is more than just his performance. Fans will be excited to see what happens in season two of this excellent new drama that deserves more buzz.

Movie ★★★★☆

Aquarius Season One Blu-ray screen shot 4

The entire first season of Aquarius arrives in a stellar 4-disc set from Anchor Bay Entertainment. This is the complete, uncut version of season one, almost 600 minutes spread across 13 episodes. The 1.78:1 widescreen presentation is encoded in AVC with solid compression parameters that transparently renders the amber-tinted video. The first three discs each contain four episodes. Aquarius has polished video quality intended to achieve a consistent tone for its period setting.

Filmed on the Arri Alexa and mastered from a 2K digital intermediate, Aquarius has fine definition and crisp clarity. The digital color grading mutes the palette of brighter primary colors, leaving an earthy period tone. The pilot is heavily pushed towards amber and brown, though that lightens up deeper into the show’s first season. A minimal amount of processing leaves a clean, pristine image behind with solid detail. A tiny amount of filtering may have been used to soften the video but the distinct digital cinematography brings out a nice, even quality.

Video ★★★★☆

Aquarius includes strong sound design and a nice selection of pop music in its soundtrack. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio has pin-point dialogue and decent surround immersion. Balanced primarily across the front soundstage, music spreads out with decent range and dynamics. Major points for using the original hits by the actual artists, such as Jefferson Airplane and the Monkees. So many network shows go cheap and use newer cover versions to save money. It is the Summer of Love all over again.

Anchor Bay provides optional Spanish and English SDH subtitles in a white font.

Audio ★★★★☆

The best thing about this Blu-ray set is that it features uncut material exclusive to Blu-ray and DVD. Each episode gets tidbits of extra footage, including more explicit language and occasional nudity.

First Look: Aquarius (03:32 in HD) – A promo featurette that was likely designed to work as a trailer to get fans excited about watching Aquarius. David Duchovny and other cast members briefly discuss the major themes of Aquarius. We get glimpses of behind-the-scenes footage and short clips from the season. This is a puff piece intended as marketing, but is a well-done, entertaining puff piece.

Webisodes (All in HD) – These four short webisodes feature backstory on how Charles Manson originally met his harem of ladies on Aquarius. Mother Mary receives the most attention, but they do a nice job in about ten minutes of explaining how Manson conned these women into following him. I was surprised they revealed so much background on the characters, since this information wasn’t covered in season one.

Episode 1 (02:52), Episode 2 (03:24), Episode 3 (02:48), Episode 4 (01:56)

Blindspot Promo (01:02 in HD) – This promo for NBC’s new show plays before the main menu.

Extras ★★☆☆☆

[display_rating_form]
[display_rating_result]

Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.