The story of Jack Parsons — the very real rocket scientist upon which “Strange Angel” is based — is a bizarre combination of ego and ambition that quite literally blew up in his face, when a chemical experiment exploded and killed him in 1952 when he was just 37 years old. Parsons was fascinated by all things considered fantastical, whether that be traveling to the moon or the Los Angeles occult scene that eventually became his stomping grounds. His life intersected in weird and fascinating ways with legendary figures like famed occultist Aleister Crowley and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. As his biographer George Pendle puts it, “By day he built rockets for the government, by night he emerged from a coffin to perform sex magic with his followers.”
The new CBS All Access drama from Mark Heyman picks up in the 1930’s, with Jack (Jack Reynor) and his partner in rocket science Ed (Peter Mark Kendall) trying to get funding from CalTech in order to get more ambitious with their experiments. Jack, convinced of his brilliance and frustrated at his chemical plant day job, can’t understand why people refuse to recognize that both he and rockets (his two biggest loves) are the future. His wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) believes in him, but is restless for his long-promised plans to come to fruition. Meanwhile, their unsettling new neighbor Ernest (a leering Rupert Friend) keeps dropping hints that he might know of a way they can transcend their frustrations to be a little bit freer, if only they’d leave behind their perceptions of what they should be doing.
A couple of things about “Strange Angel” stand out immediately. Director David Lowery (“A Ghost Story”) has an eye for dark corners that gives every scene an ominous sheen, even — or maybe especially — when it’s just showing us Jack and Susan playing house in their modest home. And composer David Hart (also of “A Ghost Story”) layers in a beautiful score that teeters right on the edge of horror, with some occasional (and lovely!) strains of folk music thrown in for good measure.
The show itself, however, stands on less solid ground. The first three episodes essentially take the first few establishing scenes of a biopic film and swells them into three full hours that don’t, in fact, tell us much more than those original abbreviated scenes might have.
And apart from a couple glimpses at the alluring occult underbelly we know Jack will eventually succumb to and bizarre sidebars to an Orientalist comic he likes, the first few episodes of “Strange Angel” make the questionable choice of focusing on Jack’s constant frustration of being a capital g Genius who can’t get what he wants. Reynor feels like he’s doing his best Leonardo DiCaprio Gatsby as Jack tries to sell his smarts by way of charm, but both are ultimately unconvincing. And while Heathcote — tasked with the show’s only female role of note — does her best to sell Susan’s restless spirit, “Strange Angel” just isn’t that interested in what she has to say unless it has to do with Jack. (In one of the show’s most self-aware moments, even her confessional priest has to nudge her to talk about anything but Jack.)
It’s hard to understand why “Strange Angel” needs to give Jack’s frustrations and pontificating about The Future so much time when there’s a much more interesting story waiting to be told elsewhere. It might be more true to life, but as long as the show is trying to mine that life for drama, it might as well cut to the chase.
TV Review: “Strange Angel”
Drama series (10 episodes, 3 watched for review): CBS All Access, Thurs. June 14
Credits: Executive producers: Mark Heyman, David DiGilio, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker and David Lowery.
Cast: Jack Reynor, Rupert Friend, Bella Heathcote, Peter Mark Kendall, Michael Gaston, Greg Wise, Rade Šerbedžija, Zack Pearlman, Keye Chen.