How do you portray a killer's charisma without making him too attractive?

Sixties show Aquarius and Channel 4's Louboutin documentary.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Aquarius
Sky Atlantic

Louboutin
Channel 4

The American reviews of Aquarius, an NBC series that first screened in the US earlier this year, were pretty jaunty. Yes, there was bafflement at the network’s decision to make the entire series available on the internet as soon as the first episode had premiered, and at least one critic complained that he was tired of seeing the Sixties on TV. But there was much praise for its star, David Duchovny, late of The X-Files and Californication. OK, they said, so Aquarius is just another police procedural and his character just another maverick cop with a busted marriage and an axe to grind. But Duchovny’s cool, right? How good to have him back.

Now I’ve seen the show, I’m astonished by this. In one sense, Aquarius (Tuesdays, 9pm) is just another cop show, though one with a retro look: watching the first episode – it kicks off in 1967 – I expected Megan from Mad Men to show up at any moment. But it is also inspired by terrible, real-life events: Duchovny’s character, Sam, has been asked by an old girlfriend to investigate the disappearance of her 16-year-old daughter who, it turns out, has joined Charles Manson’s sex cult (I can’t bring myself to call it his Family) high in the Hollywood Hills. I think this would be fine if the whole thing felt sombre and careful, in the manner of, say, David Fincher’s film Zodiac (Sam’s surname, by the way, is Hodiak, which surely is a nod to the contemporaneous Zodiac murders). But it is neither of these things. Aquarius is frequently jaunty, too: its soundtrack is a jukebox of hits (the Byrds, the Who, the Doors), its only female cop is an implausibly pretty Britt Ekland lookalike, and Sam’s relationship with his younger, hippie sidekick, a narcotics officer called Brian (Grey Damon), is mostly played for comedy.

Then there is the portrayal of Manson (Gethin Anthony). The series finds itself in a bind so far as the character goes. How to convey Manson’s supposed charisma without making him seem too attractive? At first, I thought the series-makers’ efforts on this score were plain silly. He kept saying things like, “I pulled her out of the womb of ignorance and into the light of now,” while looking crazy with a capital “C” and yet also just a touch hot. But then I began to feel slightly sick. There’s something deeply distasteful about the sex scenes in which he appears: the lighting low, the girls so very lovely, his voice a seductive growl. How do the families of those that Manson and his acolytes went on to butcher feel about the way this horrible, sad story has been appropriated in the cause of nothing more than a little rather feeble-minded entertainment? Doubtless they’re used to it by now, if it is ever possible to get used to such loss. But this is a series produced by a major network, not some easy-to-ignore, low-circulation true-crime book. They deserve better, though they won’t get it: NBC has commissioned a second series.

So, by way of light relief, let’s turn to Louboutin: the World’s Most Luxurious Shoes (11 August; repeats on 4Seven, 15 August, 1.05am). Christian Louboutin, designer of the world’s most loonily expensive stilettos, thinks of himself as “an artisan of luxury”, which sounds vaguely humble, until you clock that his Bangladeshi butler travels everywhere with him and that the Mogul-style pavilion by the pool at his home in Portugal was transported all the way from Rajasthan (he spoke of this as casually as if it was a bottle of Bacardi he’d picked up in duty free).

A mischievous fellow who counts among his friends the queen of Bhutan and Catherine Deneuve, Louboutin has perfected the art of the glacial smile when faced with awkward ethical questions. What does he make, for instance, of the fact that in India, a market into which he is expanding, there are lots of people who own no shoes at all? “Not everything is for everyone and that’s the way it is,” he said, teeth gleaming indifferently. His theories about shoes were tinged, predictably, with a seeming misogyny. They come, he insisted, with a great deal of “sexual energy” – which is perhaps just as well, as the only thing it’s possible to do in a pair of his heels is lie down.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais