Can you imagine being a CBS network executive when Strange Angel was pitched as a series? Series creator Mark Heyman likely played up the aspect of his show that would appeal to middle America – the beginnings of the United States’ space program, Nazi intrigue, and beautiful people hobnobbing in 1930s Los Angeles. I imagine he loosened his collar a bit before revealing the protagonist, a fantasy pulp fiction-reading scientist developing rockets for the US government, is a member of a sex magick cult along with his wife, and who often hosts ceremonial orgies in his living room! Knowing that juicy bit of info going into season one might make one lose patience waiting for the scandals that follow. But after ten episodes of rather intense character development, Strange Angel finally pays off in the gloriously provocative season 2.
Based on the biography Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons by George Pendle, Strange Angel (streaming on CBS All Access) owes a debt of gratitude to David Lynch, whose own work straddles the lines between the suburban, scientific, and supernatural. But truth is stranger than fiction. Set in California in the 1930s, Strange Angel introduces us to Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor), a janitor with rather lofty ambitions – he wants to go to the moon. And when his working-class days end, he and his best friend head out into the desert to test rockets.
Of course, building rockets only to see them crash and burn is an expensive hobby and it takes it’s toll on both his self esteem and marriage. When funding from Cal Tech never comes through, his wife, Susan, bankrolls the nightly launch tests by playing financial shell games with their finances. And Because Jack’s days and nights are filled with his job and extracurricular endeavors, she stays home alone most nights. Sex is frequent but unfulfilling as the repressed Susan must deal with both Jack’s expectations in the bedroom and her promiscuous younger sister Patty whom Susan is secretly jealous of. But then a mysterious new neighbor named Ernest Donovan moves in next door in the middle of the night and the fun really starts
Ernest is a rule breaker and the Parsons immediately see him as a vehicle to escape their tedious lifestyle. As the neighbors grow closer, he introduces them to a free spirited philosophy that puts an emphasis on sex magick, and that eventually brings the shy and reserved Susan out of her shell. By the end of season 2, she holds a great amount of power in the ‘Thelema’ movement.
Critics have described the series as a slow burner, one that requires a considerable amount of investment and wading through the admittedly boring rocket science before finally arriving at the salacious plot lines. That’s not to say Jack’s eventual success as a pioneer in rocketry isn’t important from a historical perspective. It most certainly is and would have probably made a decent film void of the sexual aspects. But watching the events pertaining to their new religion unfold quickly makes it an afterthought.
Strange Angel scores points for it’s diverse cast and strong female characters. Chief among these is Susan Parsons (Bella Heathcote) and her sister Patty Byrne (Laine Neil). Watching these two interact with each other and their costars as they explore their budding empowerment and sexuality during the inhibited 1930s is a joy. The show also tackles issues like classism, racism, domestic violence, and homophobia during the group’s brushes with local law enforcement and the US military. Solid performances and great writing throughout seasons 1 and 2 will leave you hoping for the next chapter.