NBC's "Aquarius" transports hippies, flower power, free love and a budding psychopath named Charles Manson to prime time.
More significant for network TV watchers, "Aquarius" marks the dawning of the new age of David Duchovny.
The drama, premiering Thursday, is a return to broadcast for the actor who first shot to stardom on Fox with the iconic sci-fi series "The X-Files" and then leaped to cable, spending seven seasons on Showtime's racy "Californication" as a troubled, alcoholic writer grappling with life and family difficulties.
"Aquarius" comes as Duchovny prepares for the long-awaited reboot of "The X-Files" for Fox alongside his original costar Gillian Anderson and the show's creator, Chris Carter.
"Aquarius" also arrives as another key component in Duchovny's directive to plant his creative flag all along the pop culture spectrum: Surprising those who see him as just a handsome actor, he released his first album this month ("Hell or Highwater") and recently published his first novel ("Holy Cow: A Modern-Day Dairy Tale").
"I like to work so I'm always looking for something to do," Duchovny says about why he took on "Aquarius" before diving back into "The X-Files." "But I was not thinking in terms of network. I liked the experience I had on Showtime, the freedom that really helped the storytelling. When I first began talking with the producers about 'Aquarius,' I never thought it was a network show."
The series revolves around Sam Hodiak, a decorated Vietnam War vet working as a homicide detective in Los Angeles in 1967. When the 16-year-old daughter of a friend goes missing, Hodiak is forced to step out of his comfort zone and deal with a younger generation that engages with looser morals, open drug use, war protests and anti-establishment movements such as the Black Panthers. During his investigation, he crosses paths with a moody but confident young man named Charles Manson, who has not yet launched his infamous murderous crime rampage but demonstrates a hypnotic and dangerous power over women.
Executive producers John McNamara and Marty Adelstein say they wanted to develop a series that could not only work as a procedural but as a piece of historical fiction combining real-life characters and events with fictional characters such as Hodiak. The 1960s provided potent territory for the massive changes going on in America.
"We were all searching for things in the '60s, and every single aspect of American life was changing at light speed," says McNamara, whose producing credits include "In Plain Sight" and "Jericho." "We wanted to write about people who have to deal with sudden change. What would it be like to be a 40-something white cop in Los Angeles, where there's Vietnam protests, the sexual revolution, the Black Panthers."
Manson's influence was a critical part of the era, says fellow executive producer Marty Adelstein: "Overnight, we went from not locking our doors, to locking our doors. As kids, we thought that Manson was gong to come and get us."
When Duchovny first started talking to McNamara and Adelstein about coming aboard, he was certain that, given the subject matter and the dark themes, "Aquarius" would never be considered for a network, and would land on cable. "But when we heard that NBC was interested, we thought, 'Well, actually, that makes sense.' Networks have been talking about how they want to compete with cable. So we still were able to make the show we wanted to make — it's not very different from what would have been on cable."
NBC is already handling "Aquarius" differently from conventional broadcast series, allowing viewers to stream all 13 episodes at once following the broadcast launch.
Duchovny adds that he was particularly intrigued by the concept; "I thought telling the story of the '60s through Manson was clever and good. As for my character, here's a guy born in the '20s or '30s, he is completely out of place, he's not of the '60s. He doesn't like the hair, he doesn't like the music, he doesn't like the clothes. I thought that was interesting."
Having to do only 13 episodes instead of a full season order of more than 20 was also a plus. "If they had wanted me to do 21 or 22, I would have balked. There's no part of me that wants to do that schedule again."
For the moment, Duchovny appears to be taking the flurry of activity with his new album, book and series in stride, though he seems to be particularly invigorated by his music and writing endeavors since they fall outside the box of what people expect of him.
When he returns to the "The X-Files" this summer, the run will be a six-episode special event. The sci-fi series premiered in September 1993 and ran for nine seasons before ending in 2002.
"We'll be going back to Vancouver, where it all started," Duchovny says. "I'm very happy that Gillian will be there with me. I look at her and say, 'Can you believe we're doing this 25 years later?' It will be nostalgic, but we're also telling new stories. I can't wait."