THE SERIES "Strange Angel"
WHERE | WHEN CBS All Access, Thursdays
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In 1930s Los Angeles, John Whiteside "Jack" Parsons (Jack Reynor) is toiling away in a chemical factory, while dreaming of launching rockets into outer space. His patient wife, Susan (Bella Heathcote, "Fifty Shades Darker") is worried about money, but his childhood friend, now a student at Caltech, Richard Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall), is working closely with him at night on perfecting a design. And then, one fateful night, a creepy man moves next door to the Parsonses. Ernest Donovan (Rupert Friend) also seems to see into Jack's heart — what drives him, what he was like as a child. When Ernest invites them to a cult meeting in Pasadena, the Parsonses reluctantly accept. This 10-parter, created by Mark Heyman ("Black Swan"), is based on George Pendle's 2006 book, "Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons."
MY SAY Los Angeles of the 1920s through 1940s was a magnet for a particular type of maverick genius — Walt Disney, Igor Stravinsky, Howard Hughes, Edwin Hubble, William Faulkner, and so on. Some changed the world (Disney), some changed the universe (Hubble), some took the money and ran (Faulkner). Parsons' story — related in two biographies and now a TV series — was a little more complicated.
He didn't exactly invent the liquid-fueled rocket. That was Robert Goddard's enduring achievement. But as co-founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, he had a hand in several other important design elements that contributed to its technology. Of arguably equal or greater interest, he also joined and promoted a cultlike (and still extant) religion called Thelema. This essentially believes that humanity has entered the "Aeon of Horus," where each human will "self-actualize." Implicit in this is something called "magick," which involves the occult and — hardly incidental to a TV series about it — rituals involving sex.
Hence the promotional and far from self-explanatory tag for "Strange Angel": "Sex. Magick. Rocket Science."
That's a long setup to a review about this intriguing, occasionally frustrating, newcomer, but also essential. Like the subject, "Strange Angel" refuses to yield its secrets readily, or quickly, but instead methodically. Given the science (difficult) and the cult (abstruse) that's a reasonable approach to the story, just not a gripping one. And over the first three episodes, "Angel" often loses its grip.
The other challenge that's not quite met is Parsons himself. One of the other biographies (2005's "Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons," by John Carter) describes him as a "very strange, very brilliant, very funny, very tormented man." But Reynor's portrait is very much the opposite of this: Boastful, impetuous, insecure, full of himself, he could just as easily be playing Justin Bieber — if Beebs was a libertarian cultist who revolutionized rocket technology through the invention of "restricted-burn" fuel.
Parsons was evidently a colorful character, his TV counterpart not so much.
Where does this leave CBS All Access' second most ambitious series (after "Star Trek: Discovery")? In wait-and-see mode. And over the first three episodes, there is a little more waiting than seeing.
BOTTOM LINE Nice-looking production that needs — please excuse the cheesy pun — a lot more rocket fuel.