'Strange Angel': TV Review

An intriguing (slightly too) slow burn.
6/14/2018

CBS All Access' new drama delves into the strange life of Jack Parsons, rocket science pioneer and occult devotee.

If you walk the earth long enough and interestingly enough, the biopic based on your life might straddle a few cinematic genres.

Jack Parsons died relatively young, but lived astoundingly. He was a janitor turned rocket scientist who helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was an innovator and an accused spy and an occult author. He was a religious leader with close ties to Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard. Any fictionalized character you might base on Parsons would be less outlandish than the real thing.

A life boasting enough material for several movies gets an ongoing TV series treatment courtesy of CBS All Access, Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions and Black Swan scribe Mark Heyman's Strange Angel, a handsomely produced period drama that, through three of the first season's 10 episodes, is more tantalizing than satisfying — though it's amply and very watchably tantalizing.

Jack Reynor plays Parsons, who is introduced working days at a chemical mixing plant and nights experimenting with rockets, aided by Cal Tech student Richard (Peter Mark Kendall). It's 1938 and rocketry is the stuff of science fiction and Jack, whose own devotion to pulp novels gives the director of the first two episodes, David Lowery (A Ghost Story), gorgeous fantasy sequences to weave through the pilot, is making it up as he goes along, which leads to explosions aplenty. Jack's wife Susan (Bella Heathcote) worries about finances and spends a lot of time at church, offering a Catholic counterpoint to the Parsons' new neighbor Ernest (Rupert Friend), who moves in with a bleating goat, a creepy lack of personal boundaries and an assortment of slogans like "Do what thou wilt," which prove enticing for Jack, no fan of establishment constraints. When Jack follows Ernest one night, he witnesses a pagan ceremony involving chanting followers, a naked woman and a gleaming dagger. He is understandably intrigued.

Parsons' life combines the conventionally extraordinary and the salaciously sensational, and Heyman tries to honor both sides. This means that the early episodes are invariably tilted toward the "misunderstood genius" piece of his biography, heavy on hastily explained physics concepts and professors and characters illustrating Parsons' precarious position with ominous warnings like, "You're trying to work in a field that does not even exist. If you do not proceed with caution, you will fail. Or, even worse, blow yourself up."

Reynor plays Jack's chip-on-the-shoulder inferiority complex well, but the reality is that once you show viewers something resembling a virgin sacrifice, you can't then spend multiple episodes on debates between liquid-fuel and solid-fuel sources without some, "Take me back to the virgin sacrifice!" impatience setting in. Heyman's deliberate pace, necessary if Strange Angel hopes to go multiple seasons, is one sure to reward bingeing on a show made for a service that airs episodes weekly, not all at once. It does, however, play into Lowery's natural directing style, one that prioritizes careful compositions and elegant editing transitions over pyrotechnics.

There's a slight drag that sets in when Jack and Susan are pondering money woes and delayed dreams — supporting performances by Hope Davis as Jack's eccentric, formerly wealth mother and Michael Gaston as Susan's stern stepfather help — but dissipates when Ernest shows up. Friend, who spent so long being questionably served as the eternally endangered Quinn on Showtime's Homeland, gives a performance of amusing weirdness and a creepy-crawly intensity that may be menace or just zealotry. Both Reynor and Heathcote, whose Susan has the feel of a guesswork-fabricated character, are more interesting with Friend than they are together. Friend gives Heathcote some taboo erotic sizzle and Reynor some crazed inspiration, keeping his co-stars' performances from becoming too cold or too bland.

In a year in which Netflix's Wild Wild Country was one of the spring's buzziest shows and tales of a Hollywood-adjacent sex cult have filled headlines, the eventual focus on Crowley's Thelema, with its blood rituals, bohemian followers and sexual pervasiveness, will be what puts Strange Angel in the zeitgeist. Similarly, if the world of pre-World War II academia is a curiosity for the show's creative team, the introduction of the cult's cryptic passwords, phantasmagorical services and free-wheeling philosophy is what they're most enjoying researching and depicting.

Based on the book by George Pendle, it isn't always clear if Strange Angel is interesting because it's telling an outrageously good story in a sturdy way or because the storytelling actually elevates the material. In the early going, it's probably a little of each, which will be more than enough cause to stick with a show and a life that have only begun to get bizarre.

Cast: Jack Reynor, Bella Heathcote, Rupert Friend, Peter Mark Kendall, Michael Gaston, Greg Wise, Rade Šerbedzija, Zack Pearlman, Keye Chen
Creator: Mark Heyman from the book by George Pendle
Pilot director: David Lowery
Premieres: Thursday (CBS All Access)

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