“I watch my daughter when she watches TV, and she never turns on a TV,” David Duchovny said recently at a seaside lounge in Santa Monica, Calif.
He may have spent most of the past two decades starring in long-running TV series, but he’s still befuddled by how drastically things have shifted over the last few years, as hand-held devices, streaming services and binge watching have made appointment viewing seem increasingly antiquated. “I have no sense of the culture of TV watching,” he said.
It’s hard to blame him for not recognizing the landscape he’s returning to via “Aquarius,” a patchouli-drenched crime drama set in late-’60s Los Angeles.
The show, which has its debut on NBC on Thursday, stars Duchovny as a detective on the trail of Charles Manson before the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders. It’s his first top billing in a network series since he played the UFO-obsessed FBI agent Fox Mulder on “The X-Files,” which remains his defining role. (One that he’ll be returning to soon.)
“Aquarius” might be set nearly 50 years into the past, but it exemplifies the sort of forward-looking experimentation networks are undertaking as new challengers arrive in the forms of streaming services and traditional TV-watching models break down.
The series was produced by Tomorrow Studios, a licensing arrangement that, as with NBC’s “Hannibal,” allows the network to fill programming hours without underwriting the production costs. (The show’s Thursday-night slot places Duchovny beside his once and future “X-Files” co-star Gillian Anderson, who is on “Hannibal.”)
Year-round programming has become a necessity for networks, which once routinely filled summer weeknights with reruns. Networks “don’t want to lose the viewer momentum in the summer,” said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst for MoffettNathanson.
NBC is also experimenting with a Netflix-style episode dump, releasing all 13 episodes on NBC.com the day after the show starts. A few weeks later, it will be available in two versions — the broadcast edition and one including coarser language and nudity — on iTunes.
“Aquarius” opens in 1967, when a missing-teenager case involving an ex-girlfriend’s daughter puts Duchovny’s Sam Hodiak, a middle-aged Los Angeles cop, onto the trail of Manson, played by Gethin Anthony (Renly Baratheon to “Game of Thrones” fans). Along the way, Hodiak tries to negotiate the changing mores and seething racial unrest of 1960s Southern California.
The Manson subplot is a “ticking time bomb” that adds tension to the story, Duchovny said, though he is more interested in how the Manson family murders, which will not happen in the first season of “Aquarius,” altered history by recasting hippies as homicidal boogeymen. “Manson the person is not that interesting; he’s just a petty criminal,” he said. “But as a symbol, he’s huge.”
In conversation Duchovny manifests the same sardonic languor his fans have come to know over the past couple of decades. At 54, he scans about a decade younger and is still fit enough to pull off the occasional shirtless scene.
The new series comes at a busy time for Duchovny, who has lately been branching into other media. (His Twitter bio: “Dilettante.”) He recently signed a deal to write his second novel — his first, the mostly well-received “Holy Cow,” came out in February. This month, in a development that surprised him almost as much as everyone else, he released his first record, a roots rock album titled “Hell or Highwater.” (He performed on the “Today” show on the day it was released.)
The album arose from a hobby that began only a few years ago but expanded when his divorce from actress Téa Leoni, finalized in 2014, left him with ample free time. He wrote all of the music and lyrics on the album, a Wallflowers-esque collection that vacillates between cleareyed ruminations on love and loss and wry sociocultural observations. He sings all 12 songs but hired a number of Boston musicians to play them because “I’m not a good guitar player,” he said.
“I would say the album was a dream come true, but I didn’t dream that dream,” he said. “It’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to me, professionally.”
Then there’s that other project that’s received some attention lately: the return of “The X-Files.” The new six-episode version of the beloved science-fiction series, which ran from 1993-2002 and spawned two films, will reunite Duchovny with Anderson, his original co-star, and Chris Carter, the show’s creator. It will begin shooting in Vancouver, British Columbia, in June and have its debut on Fox on Jan. 24.
The show, which began as an oddity but ended up a surprise hit, was wildly influential for its reliance on dense story mythology in prime time and its intelligent handling of genre fare like horror and science fiction. Not that Duchovny had any sense of its potential. “I was just trying to pay the rent,” he said. “It was a well-written pilot and kind of a cool character, this irreverent FBI agent. But who’s going to want to watch a show about aliens?”
The reunion concept had been kicking around for years, Duchovny said. “The time is right because we got our (act) together to do it,” he said. Though he left “The X-Files” before its run concluded and can seem ambivalent about the broad shadow it casts over his career, he said he looks forward to picking up the old flashlight again.
“I’m as curious as anybody else,” he said. “I’m amazed that there’s still an appetite for it, and I’m touched.”
Mulder remains Duchovny’s most well-known character, though his stint as the debauched writer Hank Moody on Showtime’s “Californication” lasted nearly as long, running from 2007 to 2014. (Notable early roles included a stint as a transgender DEA agent on “Twin Peaks.”)
But it was Duchovny’s awkward subplot on “The Larry Sanders Show” in 1996, in which he played himself as having a crush on Garry Shandling’s neurotic talk show host, that John McNamara, the “Aquarius” creator, recalled when he was casting the show.
“He didn’t push it — he was comfortable being uncomfortable,” McNamara said. “That’s the quality Hodiak has to have: He’s comfortable, but he’s not comfortable, simultaneously.”
“Aquarius” represents Duchovny’s first return to a law enforcement role since Mulder, and this time around he more conventionally looks the part. Some of the fun of the show comes simply from seeing him wander around free-love-era Los Angeles in a flattop and too-short ties — the styling signals Hodiak as a man out of his own time. Duchovny patterned the character partly after his father, a public relations executive and writer who died in 2003, who also wore a crew cut and adored Django Reinhardt.
Most people “kind of take the side of the ‘60s,” he said. “We love what it stands for, but not this guy. This guy has no clue what’s going on.”
Hodiak reaches peak cluelessness in those moments when he’s confronted by the era’s loosening moral standards, which was one reason McNamara wanted to produce more provocative versions of the episodes alongside the broadcast ones. “He’s a World War II guy; he’s not a prude,” McNamara said. “But, boy, is he not used to seeing 20-year-old girls walking around topless.”
The dual versions also allowed the producers to sell “Aquarius” overseas to channels that prefer more risqué content. “We can make it up as we go along,” Marty Adelstein, chief executive of Tomorrow Studios, said of the show’s model.
Duchovny added, “Who knew they loved breasts in Europe?”
Later that evening, at a dinner with McNamara, conversation touched on the mechanics of shooting clean and blue versions of “Aquarius” — in some cases an actress shoots a scene, then removes her top and shoots it again — before veering off course, into bad Charlton Heston films and whether or not Ricardo Montalban wore a prosthetic chest in “The Wrath of Khan.” (It is reportedly all Montalban.)
The two bonded in the early days of production over their shared love of the original “Star Trek.” The death in February of Leonard Nimoy also came up, specifically obituary writers’ tendency to employ Spock’s signature phrase “Live long and prosper” in appraisals of the actor.
“I have some fear in that area,” Duchovny said. “I think about my own obit — are they going to end it with a lame joke?”
“The truth was out there,” a reporter offered, which seemed to wound him a bit.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” he said. He laughed without much mirth.
“I kind of have to let go of it.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“Aquarius” debuts at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC. All 13 episodes will be available for streaming starting Friday on NBC.com.