The NBC show Aquarius, which also streams on Hulu, starring David Duchovny as a throwback style Los Angeles police detective in the late 1960s, is notable for its retro style and period authenticity, including speech, background, dress and music. However, it's also a notable piece of propaganda and revisionist history, especially regarding the counterculture. Specifically, the way it implies that notorious cult leader Charles Manson was an influential, archetypal countercultural or hippie figure of that period.
Charles Manson: Counterculture Icon or Fringe Cult Leader?
The 60s counterculture was a complicated mixture of elements that incorporated many positive and not-so-positive elements. Yet , amidst all the chaos of this period, Aquarius chooses none other than Charles Manson to be the embodiment of the late 60s scene - someone whose notoriety is perhaps only surpassed by Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and a few other bloodthirsty dictators.
In truth, Manson and his “family” were a relatively insignificant cult on the fringes of society. Manson had some dozen hardcore followers at the peak of his influence. Yet in Aquarius, most of the hippies portrayed are Manson followers. This is an interesting way to distort reality without actually lying outright -something the mass media is quite adept at.
Someone too young to remember the 60s or who hasn't studied the period at all -a significant portion of any TV audience, considering the show is set almost 50 years ago- could easily conclude that Manson was a cultural icon rather than a bizarre cult leader with some dozen or so followers. Whatever you might think about people such as Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and many other true countercultural figures, at least they had widespread influence.
Even if you think the whole counterculture movement was frivolous, decadent or a communist/Illuminati conspiracy, it's still a stretch to equate the average hippie with a Manson follower. Especially since Manson, until his infamous crimes at least, was practically unknown outside of his small inner circle. Yet Aquarius all but dubs him the Prince of the Counterculture.
The show actually makes this explicit at one point when someone wants to film a documentary of Manson and his group (the show is set some two years before the Manson murders) The filmmaker praises Manson as someone who has brought together many elements of the modern countercultural scene; I'm paraphrasing, but that was the essence of the message.
Aquarius manages to sweep many things under the twisted umbrella of Manson's little cult. We hear Manson expounding on mystical sounding philosophy, watch his followers taking LSD and praising ideals such as sexual freedom and freeing your mind. What's troubling is that these are things that millions of people were doing and saying in the 60s and yet here it's all being equated with the ravings of a psychotic murderer.
Even the show's name and tagline -Aquarius- using an image with a peace sign inside the “Q” and the words “Murder. Mayhem. Manson” tell a story of their own. The so-called Age of Aquarius,a long with the peace sign, is being equated with violence.
Only the most extreme cultural conservatives would put the average hippie or even radical on the same moral footing as Manson and his followers. And the show does not explicitly try to push this point of view. But the subtext is there all the same. There are no hippies on college campuses, in Golden Gate Park or anywhere else -except in Manson's compound. Considering that only a minority of viewers have direct knowledge of this period, this is quite a message to be broadcasting, even indirectly.
Justifying Police Brutality
The news has recently been full of cases where cops have beaten or even killed unarmed suspects. While the focus has mostly been on young black men, it is by no means confined to this. For example, in one case, cops beat an unarmed homeless white man to death; in other case it was an unarmed mentally disabled white woman. The perponderance of cases, however, have indeed involved blacks. While public opinion is, as always, divided on law and order type issues, there has been a definite decline in the overall public perception of police as benevolent protectors. If one were to be conspiracy-minded, one could wonder if part of the motivation for creating Aquarius was to justify brutal police tactics.
Duchovny's Detetive Hodiak is a hard drinking, bad-tempered cop who is free with his fists. Hardly unique or original for TV/movie cops, but in this series there are a few twists. Since its the 60s, the cops are given more leeway to ignore suspects' rights. There is even a scene where Hodiak sarcastically wonders if he really needs to tell someone his rights after arresting him.
In one especially violent scene, Hodiak brutally beats Charles Manson within inches of his life. This is in itself a fairly clever piece of propaganda. Everyone knows what (the real) Manson ended up doing, so it's hard to feel sorry for him. So the show manages to slip in a scene of raw brutality that is retroactively justified by history. This is the kind of slippery slope dealt with in the film Minority Report, where suspects are arrested based on what they will do in the future.
Manson is far from the only suspect brutalized by Hodiak, who is portrayed as a flawed but essentially decent human being -for example, he loves his son and even tries to prevent him from going to jail when he deserts from the army. The casual way that TV and movies justify police violence is fairly pervasive and commonly seen on shows like Law & Order. Yet Aquarius notches it up, subtly or not so subtly suggesting that if cops are not violent, people like Charles Manson are unleashed on society.
Subverting the Psychedelic Revival?
A somewhat more controversial, but equally relevant critique of Aquarius has to do with the way it portrays drugs, especially LSD. We are currently in a time when anti-marijuana laws are being repealed. Less widely reported has been the resurgence of serious experimentation regarding psychedelics for medical and therapeutic use. Yet in Aquarius, once again, it's Manson and his misguided followers who are seen as the priests of psychedelia. There is also a scene where Hodiak is “dosed” and has a rather unpleasant trip.
Psychedelics is a vast topic that goes way beyond people simply using “drugs” (many psychedelics are actually plants, such as mushrooms and cacti). Many serious researchers, from Aldhous Huxley in Doors to Perception to Stanislov Grof, have pointed out how taking such substances in the right environment can lead to personal growth, healing and spirtual understanding.
Yet all Aquarius can give us is the most simplistic, reactionary view of psychedelics, reducing them to tools used by evil cultists to control young minds. The obvious message here is that drugs are bad. The even more insidious subtext is that it's dangerous to open your mind and explore alternative states of being.
What is the Show's Underlying Message?
The point I'm trying to make here is not that Aquarius is a carefully planned, devious plot to discredit everything the 1960s counterculture stood for. It's not quite that extreme. There are a few shades of gray that prevent it from being a total piece of reactionary propaganda. There is the character of Hodiak's son, a soldier who deserts and wants to publicize atrocities commited by the U.S. The Black Panthers are even portrayed with some sympathy. But hippies are portrayed as misguided youth who are, at best, easy prey for a manipulative evil genius such as Manson.
This isn't to say that everything about hippies and the counterculture were positive. Far from it. But the flaws and vices exhibited by this subculture were, for the most part, trivial compared to what Manson represents. Yet Aquarius, either deliberately or through ignorance, fails to make this distinction. By implication, the show pushes the typical reactionary message -straight society may be dismal, corrupt and violent, but the alternative is far worse.