With ‘Strange Angel,’ CBS All Access Advances Originals Strategy in a Weird Way

Strange Angel CBS All Access
Elizabeth Lippman

Mark Heyman sits in a director’s chair on the New York street set of the Paramount lot. In front of him is a cart bearing a monitor and a copy of “Portable Darkness: an Alastair Crowley Reader.” New York is doubling for Los Angeles as the crew from “Strange Angel” shoots a scene from the CBS All Access drama’s season-one finale. Heyman, the show’s creator, gets a call asking him to walk over to Stage 5, where another unit is wrapping shooting episode nine.

“They have a question about occult symbols,” Heyman says. “I’ve sort of become the de facto expert. Hopefully it isn’t creating too much bad mojo.” He leaves the Crowley book behind.

“Strange Angel” is, as its title promises, a weird show. It tells the based-on-a-true-story of Jack Parsons, a self-taught rocketry pioneer who co-founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Aerojet Engineering, and also was a major figure in Crowley’s Thelemite occultist movement. Parsons died in 1952 following an explosion in his home laboratory, 15 years after he conducted the first experiments at Caltech that led to the creation of JPL.

In addition to being too bizarre to make up, “Strange Angel,” which premiered June 14, marks a critical point in the evolution of All Access, the streaming service that last year launched its first two original scripted series, “The Good Fight” and “Star Trek: Discovery” — both based on successful franchises from the CBS library. “Strange Angel” is different. Originally developed by AMC, it is the first All Access drama not spun off from another show. It also represents a different kind of play for All Access and CBS Television Studios — one meant to counterbalance potential franchises like Jordan Peele’s forthcoming relaunch of “The Twilight Zone” for the service.

“We’ve been taking a two-pronged approach,” says Julie McNamara, executive vice president of original content for CBS All Access. “On the one hand we have ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Twilight Zone’ coming up. These are big, tentpole shows, global brands that have the potential to bring in a larger audience. And on the other hand, in a premium space it feels incumbent on us to take some swings on things that make people take notice in a different way.” That second prong, she adds, is “What has the potential to be our ‘Mad Men’ or our ‘Handmaid’s Tale’?”

CBS is known for broad episodic dramas that rake in viewers. It is not known for shows like “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” — awards magnets, critical favorites, highbrow TV series. But for McNamara, a CBS Television Studios veteran who was elevated to the All Access job two years ago and reports to both CBS Interactive president Marc DeBevoise and studio president David Stapf, “Strange Angel” represents a new opportunity to stretch fresh creative muscles.

“In my last job it was about trying to do good versions of hitting a target and reaching a very big tent broad swathe of audience,” McNamara says. “Now it feels much more about enabling a voice, a team, a vision that feels different and fresh and has the potential to be really surprising and innovative.”

McNamara believes that “Strange Angel” has that potential. The show came to CBS, if not fully baked, at least with many of the key ingredients pre-mixed.

Heyman (“Black Swan,” “The Skeleton Twins”) wrote the pilot for Scott Free Productions, which brought it to AMC. The cabler assembled a mini-writers room around Heyman and fellow exec producer David DiGilio, which generated seven additional scripts.

But with a glut of period dramas on its schedule — “Turn,” “Halt and Catch Fire” — AMC passed. “Since Mark and I come out of the feature world, this kind of lengthy development process was nothing new at all,” DiGilio says

Heyman bears no ill will, though, toward the cabler. “They were very kind in letting us shop it around,” he says. “And because we had so much written material prepared, we were able to show other networks exactly where the show went. And for a show like this, which is sort of strange subject matter and falls outside any sort of neat genre boxes, it was very helpful to have those additional scripts.”

“Strange Angel” is, at its core, a naturalistic period drama. But the unlikely interweaving of World War II-era rocket science and occultism makes it an especially bizarre one. Complicating categorization further, the real-life Parsons was inspired by early science fiction, and “Strange Angel” weaves fantastic sequences inspired by pulp magazine stories and “War of the Worlds” into its real-world Los Angeles action.

Growing up, Jack Raynor, who plays Parsons, read science-fiction comic books such as “2000 AD,” much as the man he portrays devoured pulp magazines. Raynor had read about Parsons long before being cast.

“Just to catch wind about the opportunity to do a series about this guy’s life was kind of amazing,” Raynor says. “Ten episodes and a number of seasons rather than just to try to make a feature film about it, I think it does it more justice.”

For All Access, the show makes full use of the freedoms that come with a digital platform — no other CBS show has likely shown as many faux human-sacrifice rituals as “Strange Angel” does.

“If HBO and Showtime and Starz can effectively do anything, and they have shows that are both broad appeal and more narrow and niche, I think given our broadcast roots of the service and the brand, we have to play as either the premium version of CBS or the broadcasting version of Showtime,” DeBevoise says. “Our vision is that we’ve kind of hit that with the first few shows, and we think we can to continue to do that.”

“Strange Angel” likely won’t be a large driver of All Access subscriptions — at least not initially. But with originals, CBS has seen that it can take weeks for viewers to find a new show. For All Access, which boasts roughly 2.5 million subscribers, originals are a long-term play as the service builds its library.

That process will be a slow one: CBS plans on adding roughly just four new original series per year for the foreseeable future. McNamara sees “Strange Angel” as an important step in that continuing evolution.

“The material and the character and the two different worlds of the show really spoke to us — the idea of this genius who was somewhat fearless and probably crazy and a cultist dreaming about ways to take rockets to space,” she says. “It just felt to us like that is a fascinating journey to follow. And we felt there was a creative team behind it that could execute it in a nuanced way. That kind of collision felt very compelling.”