‘Strange Angel’ subverts engineering stereotypes

Photo courtesy of Scott Free Productions

The stereotype of the artist has long been romanticized by western media. Artists are constantly portrayed in film, literature and television as unique risk takers who are, above all, interesting.

In comparison, the image of the engineer is dry, safe and rather boring.

Engineers in film and television wear glasses and white short sleeved button-downs. They are geeky, awkward people who stumble over their words and don’t have much of a life outside
of their work.

This profiling of engineers as boring and risk averse dweebs has been going on for as long as the broad public has known an engineer as something other than a person who operates a train. At last, however, there is a show that is subverting this stereotype, at least partially.

“Strange Angel,” a biographical series about the life of aerospace engineer Jack Parsons, premiered June 14 on CBS. Parsons, best known as one of the men responsible for the creation of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lived an unconventional and fascinating life, and the first episode of the new series portrays him as closer to the stereotype of an artist than that of an engineer.

Jack Reynor (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”) stars in the show’s central role. When the show opens, Parsons is working as a janitor at a chemical plant while collaborating with Caltech researcher Richard Onsted (Peter Mark Kendall, “The Americans”)on a side project building rockets.

Parsons has no undergraduate degree and very limited formal engineering education. It is this detail which makes Reynor’s character so unique among portrayals of engineers in film and television.

Generally, engineers are shown to succeed thanks to their superior brilliance. Unlike artists, engineers and scientists rely not on passion or creativity to succeed, but rather on math and science. When they face challenges from naysayers, they do not defend themselves and their ambitions passionately, but instead simply push up their glasses and refer back to their

Jack Parsons, on the other hand, seems destined to succeed by the sheer magnitude of his passion, not by his technical abilities. As his partner Onsted points out, he is not even good at math.

The show’s pilot does an excellent job of emphasizing the uniqueness of Reynor’s character. Parsons is typically shown sketching rockets, not doing specific impulse calculations; his nighttime reading is a graphic novel about an ancient warrior driven by a desire to reach the moon, not
technical papers.

All of this means that Parsons really feels more like an artist than an actual engineer. Whether or not this portrayal is more accurrate than the typical stereotype of the nerdy engineer, it is undeniably refreshing.

Another compelling aspect of the pilot which the writers should develop further is the relationship between Jack Parsons and his wife Susan (Bella Heathcoate,

Susan is conflicted over Jack’s rocket project, and she disapproves of the amount of their personal money which he dumps into it. Heathcoate’s performance is among the best in the pilot, and the tension between the couple is powerful. Jack constantly lies to Susan about the success of his rockets, setting up an interesting conflict and making Reynor’s character morally complex.

By far the most fascinating performance in the pilot is that of Rupert Friend (“The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”) as the Parsons’ eccentric neighbor Ernest Donovan.  Friend does an excellent job of highlighting Donovan’s disregard for convention without allowing the character to
become cartoonish.

The show writers masterfully introduce Donovan as a unique influence on Jack Parson’s life. Susan convinces Jack to welcome Donovan to the neighborhood against his protests that all of their neighbors are too ordinary and uninspiring for him. By juxtaposing the true personality of Friend’s character with Parsons’ expectations, the writers signal that Donovan will have a significant influence over Jack’s life.

Beyond having an intriguing and complex cast of characters, “Strange Angels” features striking and engaging visuals.

The show’s portrayal of 1930s California is stunning, from the beauty of the mountains to the vintage grandeur of  the 1920s Pasadena mansions.

Still, the best cinematography in the pilot comes in the form of brief interludes in which Parsons reads from his graphic novel about an ancient warrior fascinated by the cosmos. These sequences feature fantastic animations of the warrior’s exploits in an almost oragami-like style set to Reynor’s voice as he reads the story.

These episodes provide an entertaining if slightly transparent look at Parsons’ state of mind, and the fantastic animations provide visual variation for the viewer.

Strange Angel is a promising show with an interesting premise and a compelling set of characters. The acting in the pilot is unremarkable aside from Heathcoate and Friend’s performances, but the characters are written well enough to overcome this.

Even if the writers let things slip a bit, the life of Jack Parsons is fascinating enough to keep the series worth watching. If they can keep the high standards set by the pilot, the show could be something special.