Genre: TV Pilot – Drama/Procedural
Premise: A veteran cop teams up with an unconventional young partner to take down Charles Manson in the days before Manson’s infamous killings.
About: Aquarius has been steadily gaining buzz ahead of its premiere next month. The gritty team-up of two cops in search of Charles Manson seems to have been at least, in part, inspired by True Detective. If not in this draft (which is dated 2013), then in its subsequent rush to get to the small screen. Writer John McNamara is a bit of a journeyman, writing for 15 different TV shows dating back to 1983. He’s arguably experiencing the biggest moment of his career, not only writing this, but also the feature, “Trumbo,” starring Bryan Cranston, which chronicles the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was one of the screenwriters blacklisted during the red scare. Trumbo will be his first feature credit. Oh, and the series will star X-Files alum, David Duchovny (playing the lead cop, not Manson, although I’d be way more interested in this if he played Manson.  Now that would be funny).
Writer: John McNamara
Details: 55 pages (Revised Draft – October 28, 2013)

charles-manson“What are you talking about? I’m not crazy, man!”

I’m going to try and say this politely. This was one of the most visually unpleasant scripts I’ve read in awhile. When you look at a good page of writing, it’s like walking into a clean apartment. Everything is where it’s supposed to be. The person living there cares about the placement of the chairs, the tables, the television, everything. You feel comfortable and safe.

Walking into Aquarius felt like walking into your derelict drug-dealing friend’s basement.  There’s a 3 foot tall stack of dishes in the sink. A trail of ants on the wall. Garbage bags lean against objects, their shape molded into them because they’ve been there so long.

Simple things like paragraphs. You want to have uniformity to your paragraphs. 2 lines here. 3 lines there. Aquarius would rock us with a 6 liner, then hit us with a 1 liner, then a 2, then another 6. It was an assault. It was all so jagged and crude.

We also had WAY too many characters, even for a TV show. I’m fine with lots of characters if they have a place in the show. But there were like 80 cops introduced, 70 of which  surely won’t be around for episode 2.  And it took me until page 30 before I knew who our protagonists were.

There were also little things that made reading unnecessarily difficult. Tons of needlessly CAPITALIZED WORDS. Underlined words. Three line parentheticals!!! And that was standard. It was like this was written during a 3 day Vegas bender.

After weeding through all that mess, I was able to discover somewhat of a story. Aquarius follows LAPD Sargent Sam Hodiak. Hodiak’s called in by Grace Karn, a woman he used to date, whose 16 year old daughter, Ella, is missing. Because Ella’s father has political aspirations, they can’t make this public. So they were wondering if Hodiak could, you know, find Ella on the down-low.

Since Ella was last seen partying, Hodiak calls on Brian Shafe, a young cop who’s recently infiltrated the hippy drug scene. Shafe becomes an undercover secret weapon who works his way into the parties where he finds out a certain somebody is hoarding up all the hot girls, promising them a life of love and happiness. That somebody is a young drifter named Charles Manson.

While Manson’s interest in Ella appears random at first, it turns out there’s more than meets the eye. Ella’s lawyer father used to represent Manson. And when he stopped returning Manson’s calls, Manson took it personally. Therefore, his seduction and defloweration of Ella was payback. He lets her father know that if he doesn’t start cooperating, this is just the beginning.

AquariusAbercrombie & Fitch ad or a scene from Aquarius? You decide!

Aquarius feels like Ryan Gosling may have consulted on it. It takes forever to get started, with a never-ending line of character introductions before any real story begins. I mean if you don’t know who the main character in a pilot is before page 30, the captain needs to be notified that the plane is going down.

This meant the last 26 pages contained all the good stuff. And there are a couple of nice scenes. Like when Shafe takes a fresh-out-of-training undercover female cop to convince Manson’s right-hand man to take them to Manson. The henchman tells them sure, but the price of admission is that he gets to bang the girl. Shafe did not prepare the female cop for this and they can’t blow their cover so he goes along with it, leading to the only scene in the pilot that contained some actual suspense.

My biggest issue with Aquarius is that if you take out the Manson element, there’s nothing left.  I understand that the dramatic irony of Manson’s involvement drives the story.  But that doesn’t mean you can just phone everything else in. Without Manson, these are just a couple of cops looking for a guy who kind-of kidnapped a girl (but not really, since she wanted to go with him). Not exactly a high-stakes scenario.  It’s hinted at that Manson killed a girl a few months earlier.  Why not start there?  Now you’ve got a show.

I’m also worried about the show’s arc. We all know where it’s headed. And it’s not good. The good guys lose. So why are we watching again? Resting on the celebrity of Manson isn’t enough. Then again, maybe this is another True Detective scenario where I just don’t get it. That’d be nice. I don’t want the show to be bad. But going off this pilot script alone, it doesn’t look good.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: It’s hard to make the reader care when he’s way ahead of the investigation.  We all know that Manson took Ella. We saw it. The next 40 pages, then, are waiting for Hodiak and Shafe to catch up to us. You can add suspense to this scenario IF the victim is in imminent danger (Silence of the Lambs). But Ella never seems to be in danger at all. She’s a little unsure of being here. But that’s it.  Not exactly a ticking time bomb scenario.

  • klmn

    Saturday we got Cielo Drive and now this. Manson is making a comeback.

    • BellBlaq

      Wasn’t the author of that a TV writer guy? Maybe that’s why he wrote it… trends and all…?

  • srodney

    I can’t see how this premise would make it for five seasons without lots of padding in the story telling.
    Is there a way this can be done?

    • carsonreeves1

      That’s exactly what this first episode felt like! They’re already padding in the pilot! How much dancing around can you do until the murders happen?

      • filmklassik

        Carson: Surprised you didn’t dig the writing here. McNamara’s a true wordsmith. His dialogue is always strong and his scene descriptions terse and evocative. Which isn’t to say that the premise for the show isn’t flawed. It may well be. But the author is a craftsman.

    • Randy Williams

      I would think the bigger challenge is writing a TV crime show without anyone taking out a cellphone.

      • walker

        No that is an advantage for the writer. Before cell phones information was less widely and immediately available and writers were able to construct scenarios around withholding information from a subset of characters. I spend a lot of time coming up with plausible reasons why cell phones can’t save the day this time.

        • Linkthis83

          • walker

            Hollywood’s Golden Age. No cell phones, cars that broke down in the middle of nowhere, guys that could leave town and turn up living under fake names a couple of states away, and everybody taking cigarette breaks for exposition.

          • Linkthis83

            I want all of my stories to take place in the 80’s (or earlier) because there was all these great, natural problems for heightened suspense/tension. No caller ID – Corded phones – pay phones – microfiche – newspapers – etc.

          • klmn

            I think they did have microfiche – and newspapers.

          • klmn

            Aka, “the good old days.”

          • Poe_Serling

            klmn-

            You’re slipping, my friend – where’s Age of Aquarius music clip for today’s post?

          • klmn

            Too easy. Reading this makes me want to revisit the tv movie made from Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter.

            Steve Railsback really nailed the part of Manson – IIRC, he was typecast because of this and had trouble getting roles. Here’s a taste.

            I think someone should just remake that movie for theatrical release, maybe expand it with explicit sex and gore.

            And here’s the proper music.

          • Poe_Serling

            That was Railsback’s defining role. I did enjoy his turn in The Stunt Man.

          • Poe_Serling

            Just stumbled upon this – there was a ’49 film with the title Helter Skelter.

            “A detective gets involved with a wealthy socialite who can’t seem to stop hiccupping.”

            Wonder how that premise for a script would go over on AOW.

          • klmn

            Evidently it was a British comedy. I wonder if the Beatles got the title from that?

          • walker

            The Beatles were using a familiar British colloquialism: a “helter skelter” is a slide such as you would find in a children’s playground. Hence the opening lyric “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide/Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride/Til I get to the bottom and I see you again.”

          • klmn

            Thanks, I didn’t know that. In American slang, it just means something in disarray.

            I don’t think old Charlie knew the British meaning.

          • Poe_Serling

            Or just when someone is about to call for help – the line goes dead due to a storm/gets cut by the bad guy/etc.

          • MWire

            Or if you’re out of change for a pay phone.

            Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake:
            Colonel… that Coca-Cola machine. I want you to shoot the lock off it. There may be some change in there.

            Colonel “Bat” Guano:
            That’s private property.

            Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake:
            Colonel! Can you possibly imagine what is going to happen to you, your
            frame, outlook, way of life, and everything, when they learn that you
            have obstructed a telephone call to the President of the United States?
            Can you imagine? Shoot it off! Shoot! With a gun! That’s what the
            bullets are for, you twit!

            Colonel “Bat” Guano:
            Okay. I’m gonna get your money for ya. But if you don’t get the
            President of the United States on that phone, you know what’s gonna
            happen to you?

            Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake:
            What?

            Colonel “Bat” Guano:
            You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca-Cola company.

          • davejc

            “We traced the call! It’s coming from inside the house!”

      • LV426

        Or detectives/agents getting excited about hackers, sexting, drones, and spyware.

        Seriously, all the police procedurals these days are seeming more and more like advertisements for both civilian and government technology.

    • Eddie Panta

      I believe AQUARIUS was created as a 13 episode event series.

  • carsonreeves1

    That picture I included is a real set photo from the show by the way. Look at the guy who’s playing Manson. Did Charles Manson have his own hair stylist??? Didn’t hear about that in Helter Skelter.

    • jonsanhueza

      And since when were hippies so clean!? Damn Hollywood!

    • LV426

      I was thinking as I read the review… A lot of this show’s success or failure will be dependent upon who plays Manson. It’s hard to tell from a single picture like that, so I’ll withhold any judgment for now.

    • vee

      I lived in Hollywood 68-69 and met Manson & his family. Spent an entire day with them, they invited me to join their family. The actor for Manson plays him very well, hippies weren’t necessarily dirty, and the picture above is OK. The clothes should be faded out and worn, though. Girls wore “bell bottom/flare” jeans. Manson’s hair was greasy like the actor’s. I would love to share my experiences with the writers of the show that would make great episodes! Met him and 3 of his girls, including Lynette as he was coming from a record store on Sunset, he just purchased the white album and told us all about it. He talked a lot. They wanted my car, I’m lucky I left alive with my car! Good, true life story to tell. If interested, contact me.

  • GYAD

    Haven’t read it (13a769cf@opayq.com if you’ve got it) but it seems to me that if the show starts with Ella being taken – and there’s no physical danger – then the suspense over the episode ought to be either (a) him trying to deflower her or (b) his trying to indoctrinate her. It’s not as visceral as a physical threat but anyone with a daughter would feel the jeopardy.

    I’m slightly baffled by the concept though; it’s big but we know how this ends (and it ain’t good) and there’s no way there’s enough material for a full seven seasons unless they just start making stuff up. Unless this is based specifically on a true story then it ought to be about a splinter cult led by a protegee of Manson, which would give more creative room whilst retaining the notorious name.

    • S.C.

      Sent!

  • ripleyy

    Kinda silly how it’s called Aquarius when Manson is actually a Scorpio (joking aside, it’s probably a reference to “Age of Aquarius”).

    This doesn’t really seem rather exciting. If they had focused this one the Charles Manson murders and the cops trying to stop them, or maybe about someone being recruited into his family but wanting out, those are good ideas. Not really this.

    • LV426

      If this series really does get into the nitty gritty of all the hippie/new age craziness then I would be more interested. Mad Men certainly delved into some of that, but never focused on it. So I’d be up for some far out shit mannnn….!!!!

      Also because I really liked Inherent Vice and just recently watched The Doors. So I guess I’m just in that groovy mood now.

      Of course, one doesn’t need to focus on Charles Manson to explore the 1960s counterculture in a TV/cinema medium.

      • ripleyy

        I admit I’m not completely up on the whole Charles Manson family thing, so if the show offers historical facts and stuff like that, then I’d be inclined to watch it as well if I was learning something out of it.

  • Randy Williams

    O.T.

    Carson suggested we hunt this script down, gave it a worth the read.

    Trailer is out for “Where the cancer be at” Me & Earl & The Dying Girl.

  • Eddie Panta

    I was just discussing some of the points with other commenters on the AOW board for the script Cielo Drive.

    I think FOX lost a potentially great project when they declined to produce the Rob Zombie B. Easton Ellis, 60’s, Manson Family, TV project because of NBC’s AQUARIUS.

    IF you don’t have traditional suspense built into the story because the audience knows the outcome, then you’ve got to rely on tension to keep the audience engaged. The key is to find a thread that takes us through the known events from a different angle.

    Jay Sebring, a very successful hair-stylist in LA, was also murdered that not on Cielo Drive. He was Sharon Tate’s ex-boyfriend, they met at The Whiskey. The film SHAMPOO was partially based on his life. Sebring had taken karate lessons from BRUCE LEE, and was so impressed with Lee that he encouraged him to make an acting reel, which he did. Sebring passed the reel along to his studio executive contacts, and that’s how Lee landed the role of Kato in the GREEN HORNET. The night of the murders, Sebring attempted to fend off the Manson Family attackers, but he was shot by Tex.

    So, there are of ton of other mini-stories here that revolve around the Manson Family.

    • charliesb

      Just from your brief bio, I’m interested in Sebring and want to know more. I suspected that AQUARIUS, would be like THE WIRE, and be pulling in all these smaller stories to make up the whole.

      Just as Mules figured the pitch was MAD MEN meets TRUE DETECTIVE, I figured it was MAD MEN meets THE WIRE.

  • mulesandmud

    I assume we’re going to be seeing lots of television series sifting through the ashes of the 60s now that MAD MEN has built up that decade and then burnt it to the ground.

    If the words “It’s MAD MEN meets TRUE DETECTIVE!” were not said during the pitch meeting for AQUARIUS (and probably fifty other pitch meetings that week), then I truly know nothing about this industry.

    There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a show here, and more than enough material to create a sprawling, complex world that not only explores the Manson murders, but the shifting culture tides that surrounded them.

    However, there’s a huge amount of doubt in my mind that NBC will tackle this world with ambition or nuance. Despite the embarrassment of cultural riches and an army of characters, I agree that the episode felt thin.

    For the record, I thought TRUE DETECTIVE was thin, too, with all those Mcconaughologues used as filler to stretch a two hour story into eight. In the case of TD, though, at least the filler ended up giving the show a distinct style and personality. In fact, if you ask Nic Pizzolatto, the character monologues were the real content, and the cop stuff was the filler (he may have a point there).

    In my opinion, the police procedural engine is a double-edged sword for long-form storytelling. Sure, it gives a story structure, but everyone in the world has seen that formula accomplished in just a single episode of a dozens of case-of-the-week cop shows. A show that stretches a single case into one or more seasons had better give us a genuinely good reason for taking so damn long.

    THE WIRE, for example, built a one-case-per-season formula by weaving together an elaborate tapestry of Baltimore’s drug war from top to bottom, adding new social dimensions (unions, politics, education, press) with each season.

    With AQUARIUS, the time period is meant to supply this extra layer of personality, but one episode in, that didn’t feel like enough. The engine was running, but the car was on cruise control (which was invented in the 60s, I believe).

    I suspect the overall show will feel more substantial if it focuses less on procedural stuff, giving us just enough of the investigation to provide momentum. There are hints it could go that way, but oftentimes you just can’t tell from pilot. It would be great if one of these Tuesdays Carson reviewed a show bible instead of just a pilot script.

    I didn’t have the same degree of formatting frustration that Carson did, but there were too many CAPS for comfort, no question. If you emphasize dozens of details in every scene, that ends of confusing our attention more than if you just let the words speak for themselves. It feels indecisive.

    • LV426

      I was thinking the same thing about this in relation to Mad Men. They’ve got this timed to hit precisely on the heels of Mad Men’s series finale.

      I get that from a marketing standpoint, although it does make this feel less authentic and more like another “me too” show. It feels like another Pan Am in terms of trying to ride the coat tails of Mad Men. AMC tried to do this already. Last year they pushed Halt & Catch Fire as the Mad Men of the 1980s set in the world of tech developmemt and early years of home computing. Now, I actually really enjoyed H&CF, but it was obvious that AMC was desperate to get the Mad Men crowd onboard. Maybe they figured they had The Walking Dead going strong, but needed to hold onto the Mad Men and Breaking Bad fans via H&CF and Better Call Saul.

      It’s funny that we compare this to True Detective as well. Like Mad Men, it was one of those shows that seemed to come out of nowhere and took people by surprise. Lost, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones all had a similar debut-to-shock effect. They just came out of nowhere and quickly built up dedicated fanbases. They felt fresh to audiences. This has happened with movies as well. If we go back to the ancient year of 1999, there was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, which made money but fell flat on its face. It was The Matrix and The Sixth Sense which caught people by surprise that summer.

      It seems to me that the true hit movies and television shows are the surprises and sleeper hits that no one is banking on. People love that and see these as “authentic” next to all the Star Wars, Avengers, Batmans, Jurassic Worlds, and Terminator: Genisys style franchise films. Just as TV thrives on the surprise hits in a sea of CSI, NCIS, and Law & Order procedurals. It’s a certain “it” factor that you can’t plan and can’t buy. It either is or it isn’t. The audience decides this for us. All we can do is write and hope for the best. I don’t know if that is liberating or frustrating, or both simultaneously.

    • Eddie Panta

      I’m not sure if this is really a network response to MAD MEN. They already had their go at a Mad Men type series with PAN AM and the PLAYBOY CLUB, both which crashed and burned. Neither show knew how to manage conflict within the confined situation the show’s title sets up.

      Instead of using the 60’s lifestyle to reflect on who we are now, Pan AM and Playboy club simply used it as a backdrop and for costuming.
      After the pilot, the writers quickly ran out of drama, they switched to more juicy stories, setting up the characters in melodramatic mysteries like espionage and mob assassinations.

      MAD MEN succeeded because it was able to find enough conflict within the confines of an advertising agency to last for seven seasons. They went behind the costumes and nostalgia and mined each character for relatable stories about women in the work place and men aspiring to the American dream.

    • Dan B

      I was listening to Hollywood Prospectus on Grantland the other day, where they discuss a lot of TV, including a lot of Mad Men convo. They made an interesting point, on how the show was never really about the 60’s. It has been more of a character study set in a “work place” drama. This show could have been placed in any decade and been just as great. While thinking about this, I thought about the other shows that tried to mimic the “Mad Men” momentum like Playboy Club and Pan Am (which other commenters have brought up). I think the difference here was these shows that the Networks tried to run with were focusing more on the “Time Period” rather than making brilliant character pieces. It’s an example of Execs focusing on the wrong thing. Mad Men is great because people (well not a ton of people, its not a ratings blockbuster) tune in to be in this “world” with the characters. It could be in the 80’s with some 80’s version of Don Draper and Roger Sterling, and it would still be great to watch. Pan Am and Playboy club failed because the actual character and story wasn’t there, and I think networks were just chasing what they saw as a “trend.” They just mistook what made the show so intriguing.

  • Dan B

    OT: But I just noticed that the top 10 amateur screenplays have been listed, and Carson changed his top 25. Carson, how do you sort your top 25? Equalizer was the number 3 script before, and now it’s not even on the list. Is there a criteria, or a certain point where scripts just get dropped to make room for others?

    • klmn

      Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t spot the change.

      Looking at the list, I’m surprised The Disciple Program isn’t on the list. It was largely because of Carson’s efforts that the script was optioned.

      • Midnight Luck

        I thought Disciple was purchased and so now the writer is considered on the Pro list?

        • klmn

          It was reviewed on Amateur Fridays so I don’t know what the situation is.

          • Midnight Luck

            yes I remember. I guess that does make it a bit confusing. I think when he approached Carson and Carson decided to review it on Friday, it hadn’t been purchased yet.

          • Dan B

            The top 10 amateur list was voted on by commenters I believe. We had that vote a few months back, and he listed a group of scripts that made the cut. I don’t know how the top ten were tallied though.
            Also, I recall him saying that Disciple Program (still in his top 25) and Where Angels Die were excluded. Does anyone know how many of these top 10 have gotten deals? I think Rose in the Darkness sold for Joe Marino, right? Also, Craig has a deal for Devil’s Hammer if I’m not mistaken.

    • Midnight Luck

      i believe once they get released as a movie in the theater they can then fall off the list. At least they seem to once he does a whole revamping of his list.

      I want to know how he came up with a top 10 Amateur list. did we vote on it and i don’t remember, or does he come up with it via his own scaling system? (like how big of a comment day that particular script had?)