Thursday, June 14, 2018

REVIEW: 'Strange Angel' - Jack Pushes to Completely Reinvent the World Through Rockets in 'Augurs of Spring'

CBS All Access' Strange Angel - Episode 1.01 "Augurs of Spring"

In 1930s Los Angeles, Jack Parsons works as a janitor at a chemical factory by day, but by night he nurses a secret ambition: to build rockets that will take mankind to the moon. The pressures of his double life are further complicated when Jack and his wife Susan are confronted by a mysterious new neighbor, Ernest Donovan, who appears to be leading a double life of his own.

In its first three forays into original scripted programming, CBS All Access released the episodes on Sunday. That's where fans of Star Trek: Discovery, The Good Fight and No Activity came to expect the episodes to debut. And now, the streaming service is changing up its release strategy for Strange Angel. This new drama is debuting its episodes every Thursday. It's an experiment that I'm intrigued to hear the rationalization behind. In the beginning, CBS All Access wanted that simple but achievable goal of airing one new show each quarter. It has essentially done that with The Good Fight in the spring, Star Trek: Discovery in the fall and No Activity in the winter. It has made it so that there is at least one new original in each month of the year. That's impressive. I still don't really believe that CBS All Access is a great value in the streaming wars just yet. It is still just figuring itself out and building up its library of content. It should be very fascinating to see just how quickly the service desires to grow. That's what I believe fuels this decision to air Strange Angel on Thursdays. It feels like the executives trying to figure out if they can launch a new day of programming so that their audience can come to expect content on more than just Sundays. Eventually, the service will probably be airing more than one show at a time. It is still doing things with weekly releases as well. That's the formula that has always worked well for CBS. The parent company seems very happy with the numbers the streaming service is currently pulling in. It has already ordered a handful of new shows that should be debuting fairly soon as well. I'm curious as to who will be able to discover the original shows not based on any pre-existing content on the service though. Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight have their built in audiences who are able to craft some momentum behind the debuts. When No Activity was airing, I didn't hear many people talking about it. It still got renewed though. Similarly, I didn't see many reviews appear ahead of the launch for Strange Angel. And yes, it's central character is based on a real-life man who lived quite a peculiar and baffling life. But that's not the typical way to launch a successful television show. So, all of this could be a way to just bury the show because the executives didn't like how it turned out. But the actual premiere is very fascinating with a very deliberate pace and tone. It has a specific look and story it wants to tell and it does so very admirably here.

"Augurs of Spring" doesn't start in 1930s Los Angeles though. It instead opens with this fantastical sequence shot through an extreme red filter that forces the audience to enter into this very off-kilter world. It's a universe completely foreign to the viewer and what our natural expectations for the show must be. Strange Angel is a period drama but this sequence doesn't resemble that style at all. It is much more fantastical with a hunter talking about needing to face death in order to know how to truly live. It's a sequence that climaxes with this warrior going head-to-head with a vicious beast twice his size. It's such a striking opening image. And then, everything comes crashing back to reality for Jack Parsons. This is simply his interpretation of a story that he is reading. He is caught up in the adventures of this graphic novel. He is blown away by just how poignant and meaningful the content of the story actually is. Throughout this premiere, he is talking about the story and living out the various details of the protagonist's life. He is there to witness this warrior being celebrated for his slaying of the beast while also trying to find that high again throughout every single aspect of his life. He couldn't find anything that matched that rush of emotions that he felt during that moment. And so, he decided to strap himself to a dozen rockets in the hopes of being sent out to a different world with different opportunities or experiences. Even if he died trying to get there, he would still somehow find himself in a new destination to see things from a different perspective. It's a story that Jack can relate to because he sees the world differently and wants to push back against the norms of society and what's possible in this world. Meanwhile, his wife Susan just wants to note the gross and sexist undertones of this piece of work. Yes, he agrees that she has a point but the underlying message is still the same as well.

All of this is basically used to prop Jack up as this unique genius who is being crushed by the norms of society in the 1930s. He is expected to be a husband and family man working hard to pay off his mortgage and provide for his family. He is expected to go to church and be a devout man who celebrates his family and upholds their traditions no matter what. Instead, he is living a double but exhausting life trying to chase his own dreams. Instead of focusing on these idyllic norms of the time, he is trying to build a rocket to one day take a man to the moon. That's his objective. He just happens to be using all of the cash he gets from working during the day to chase this foolish endeavor. He believes that it's all about to pay off for him and his best friend, Richard. They have the smarts and mechanic expertise to help make this dream a reality. Richard has the access to the supplies thanks to him being a student at Caltech. Jack has the ideas and the willingness to take risks even though they may literally blow up in his face. And so, he pushes to actually show off his research on a practical level to the professor who wishes to turn down their proposal. He is pushing for that idea. It's the only way that he can see them getting the funding they need to actually change the world. Jack needs that right now in order to support his family. But he's not actually worried about that at all. In fact, he is so completely focused on this dream that he may be a little distant from every other aspect of his life. He's willing to steal from Richard and push him into doing something he isn't comfortable with in using liquid fuel to power the rocket. Even when he makes his point, Jack wants to stare confidently at death in his face. He would almost certainly have died if he continued standing after his experiment started blowing up. That's why it's necessary to have Richard and other people on the team. They have to reel him in to ensure that he stays alive long enough to change the world.

All of that is very exciting though. Yes, it's clear that Jack's dreams and desires come ahead of anything else. Susan is devoting all of her time to praying that Jack will get the approval he needs in order to care for her and the house again. She doesn't want to keep telling her father that Jack is too busy to come to Sunday supper or to make the payments on the mortgage. She is standing by her man through all of this because she believes in him. But it's also clear that faith plays a huge role in this story. Susan is the one actually going to church and praying. She wants this to work out. All she gets from the priest is a passive aggressive comment about Jack not being the one to make the prayers himself. Jack would counter that he's actually making his dreams a reality by being forceful and demanding to be noticed. He succeeds in that endeavor. And yet, Jack only gets this brilliant idea from the mysterious new neighbor who has just moved in next door. Ernest is a complete strange and mystifying presence throughout this premiere. He is perplexed by the idea of neighbors welcoming him to the community and wanting to socialize with him. It's a strange time for him because he is thrown by people just living within the norms of what's acceptable in society. Yes, Jack is being pushed by Susan to make a good first impression as well and be a good neighbor. But Ernest is trying to bring Jack's true self out of him. The personality that is actually willing to punch Ernest in the face as soon as he pulls Jack into too much trouble. That's essentially the story here. Jack needs to learn to think big and not be afraid to explore the world around him. Sure, it could jeopardize his life and career in so many ways. But he has to be willing to take those risks to make it work. It's just striking that Jack only comes to that realization when Ernest is in the middle of drowning him in a pool.

But there is still so much that Jack doesn't know about Ernest. Jack is intrigued by this newcomer to his life. When he first appears at the door to Jack and Susan, he is carrying a goat. Later on at night, Jack hears Ernest probably killing that goat and washing the blood off of his knife. When the two actually do interact, Ernest is forcing Jack to do things he never thought he would do - like simply going to the top of the nearby hill and being unafraid of the wildlife up there or going for a dip in a neighbor's pool. Of course, there is still some reluctance and restraint from Jack as well. He still wants to live in a world governed by these rules that help it all function properly. He doesn't want to simply break the system and live however he wants like Ernest does. And yet, that could make Ernest's life either seem appealing or so destructive. He is so carefree in his behavior here. But he's so mysterious about his actions too. Jack feels the need to follow him after hearing the screams from the goat. That only leads him to a shocking discovery of some kind of ritualistic ceremony revolving around blood and needing to slice open a virgin. It's such blunt storytelling while still being pretty vague too. This kind of ceremony is only hinted at here - though it's clear it's going to become an important part of the story moving forward. Ernest sees Jack interrupt this ceremony. All he does to reach out to him is leave a cryptic note on the front door that Susan eventually finds. It's all so random and creepy here. As such, the show better offer up some kind of explanation soon as to how all of this also fits into the story and its impact on Jack's life.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Augurs of Spring" was written by Mary Heyman and directed by David Lowery.
  • The direction of this premiere from David Lowery may be the most striking element of this new drama. The world is so absolutely vivid whenever Jack retreats into his imagination of what the world is possibly of being. And yet, it's just as cinematic and beautiful to watch when it's simply Jack and Richard in the desert trying to figure out the mechanics of their rockets to impress this professor.
  • Rupert Friend is certainly giving the most memorable and unique performance from the ensemble so far. It's such a completely different performance than the one he was delivering on Showtime's Homeland as well. That's where most of his fans know him from. As such, it should be interesting to see what they think of all of this. Meanwhile, Jack Reynor and Bella Heathcote are rising stars who definitely have the potential to be breakout actors here.
  • It's also just great to see the supporting ensemble filled with veteran actors of note. That too is a way to really boost the appeal and strength of a show. This show could be carried by one charismatic central performance. But it's also nice to see Michael Gaston, Rade Šerbedžija and Peter Mark Kendall in roles that could be interesting if developed a little more in the future.
  • Ernest mentions that he has a wife. Susan makes a point in inviting both of them to this dinner. And yet, neither of them show up. In fact, Ernest's wife is never seen at all. As such, the rational question should be if he actually has a wife. He is wearing a wedding ring but that could be associated with whatever this ritualistic group he is a part of is doing. Or it's also possible that he moved here because his wife no longer wanted to be with him.
  • Susan works for her father. She is basically just typing up all of his reports for him. It means they must have a really close relationship. He has the connections at the bank to help her out of her current problems. And yet, he is also very curious about why Jack isn't caring for his wife. But it also introduces the idea that she has a sprained wrist that is acting up for her.