When it comes to dramatic television, there’s drama, DRAMA, and melodrama. We all know melodrama. It’s soap operas. It’s kidnapped babies, 10-year-long comas, and brain transplants. It’s all those things and the over-the-top acting that comes with it. In primetime, we more frequently encounter DRAMA. This sits a bit more in realism. It’s realistic, but actions are bigger. It’s New York detectives chasing criminals through alleys. It’s characters unloading all of their emotional baggage and then walking away. It’s untrained officers charging into danger to prove themselves. It’s realistic, but it’s larger than our everyday lives. No hesitation, no idiosyncratic behavior, and certainly no mumbled speeches or morally less-than-righteous heroes.
What Aquarius seems to be aiming towards is much closer to drama. Cinematic drama where production teams take time to create specific and unique patterns of behavior. Where realism takes a greater hold. There are a few key examples of this in last night’s episode. It’s big things like not letting Charmain go off on her own to confront the girlfriend-beating football star. Which, come on Charmain, you are so much smarter than this, but in a standard crime drama that’s exactly what she’d do. Here we get a scene between her and Hodiak that boils down pretty realistically to what would happened if she tried to use herself as bait in a real world situation. I’m sure a few would argue that this downplays the action of the scene or makes it somehow inert. I’d counter by saying that it gets us to the same point sooner. Consider this; if Charmain goes through with her plan, gets caught, and dies or is fired, what do we learn? That these cops are stuck in a moral grey zone where they mostly fight battles no one can truly win? Instead we get a conversation between her and Hodiak where this idea is simply stated. Rather than going through the cliché dramatic arc, Aquarius boils it down to a conversation. Same message, but quite a bit more succinct.
If any specific character embodies this “heroes who can’t win” message, it must be Hodiak who carries a kind of Italian neo-realism tarnish with him throughout our story. Just like the heroes of that classic film movement, Hodiak has no illusions about being noble. He’s very aware of his failings: racist, bully, divorcee, drunk. He’s aware of these failings, but rather than wallow in self pity he uses his failings to defend those he judges to be more noble, more worthy of the “better life” denied him.
Beyond this commitment to a more realistic form of conflict resolution and morally ambiguous heroes, we can also see the neo-realism influence in tonight’s two major plot lines. Both the racial tension building in Shafe’s neighborhood and Charmain’s quest to bring an abusive boyfriend to justice reflect true concerns of the time. These aren’t high stakes DRAMA of germ warfare or complicated government conspiracies. Much like The Bicycle Thieves or Rome: Open City, these stories only touch those who live in their immediate vicinity. They are the problems and concerns of everyday people, just trying to do their job or raise their family. It’s refreshing to see plots brought down to such a relatable level, especially since these are issues we know still exist today.
This is not to say that Aquarius is completely free of DRAMA or melodrama. You only need to watch tonight’s opening sequence where the promise of sex with a complete stranger on the back of a truck works as fair trade for merchandise theft to know that there’s still a certain willing suspension of disbelief here. Still, it’s interesting to watch actors, writers, and directors create something with this much character specificity. It may not be the future of television, but I think there’s certainly room for us to see a great deal more of these “real” people living “real” lives and by that measure the choices we might make ourselves on television screens.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based freelance writer and director and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website, or follow her on Twitter.