‘Angelyne,’ Starring Emmy Rossum as L.A.’s Billboard Queen, Is Best When Embracing the Gloriously Tackiness of Its Subject: TV Review

Stay in Los Angeles long enough, and you’ll have an Angelyne story. Decades after plastering the city in mysterious billboards bearing her name and Barbie-esque silhouette, the self-made urban legend can still be found zipping through the streets in her signature Corvette, a flash of bubblegum pink on the desert horizon. While less ubiquitous than she once was, Angelyne remains a hyper-local symbol of a Hollywood dream come to plasticene life. She was famous, as the often derisive saying goes, for being famous and not much more — which is, as the new Peacock series about her argues, exactly how she wanted it.

Starring Emmy Rossum, an executive producer and self-professed super-fan of the unknowable person she plays through layers of makeup and enormous fake breasts, “Angelyne” attempts to unpack the woman, the myth, the legend over five self-reflective episodes. Even as the show uses Gary Baum’s Hollywood Reporter investigations into Angelyne as a base — and The Hollywood Reporter as a co-producer for the project — the fact of Angelyne’s extreme reticence to reveal any single personal detail about her pre-Angelyne life looms large. How do you tell the story of someone who so steadfastly refuses to be known?

As developed by writer Allison Miller, this scripted version of Angelyne leans into that dilemma with a series of sporadically effective narrative tricks. Much like “Inventing Anna,” the Netflix series that tried its best to unveil a New York City scam artist’s origin story, “Angelyne” moves through its subject’s life by focusing each episode on a person who came to know her — or, at least, thought they did. From a besotted guitar player who happily let her take over his band (Philip Ettinger), the starry-eyed adman who first bankrolled her billboards (Martin Freeman), his frustrated daughter (Molly Ephraim), an aspiring documentarian (Lukas Gage), or the fan who became her longest-running assistant (Hamish Linklater), the series visits their shared past with Angelyne up to the present day, when a reporter (Alex Karpovsky) has finally revealed the woman behind the icon.

Flashbacks throughout the decades crop up between characters in unconvincing old age makeup addressing the camera, documentary style, with sweeping decrees about the true nature of Angelyne, fame, and everything in between. Here, “Angelyne” hinges on Rossum’s impressive physical transformation, hammy line reads, and self-consciously written turns of phrase that might as well be ripped from the show’s pitch deck. “People paint me as a vapid, talentless, over-the-top cartoon who’s only obsessed with fame and success. Paint me however you like! More than anything, this is about survival,” Angelyne purrs at the camera somewhere in the middle of the series, well after that theme’s already been highlighted in bold. With such blunt lines and even blunter line deliveries, these moments mostly end up feeling so exaggerated as to be distractingly artificial — qualities they share, whether purposefully or not, with Angelyne herself.

The series does eventually try to weave in the story The Hollywood Reporter broke: how Angelyne was born to a Polish family of Holocaust survivors, and endured her volatile father by losing herself in dreams of embodying the high glamour of Marilyn Monroe. Where “Angelyne” most succeeds, however, is when it echoes the same carefully constructed campiness of its subject rather than try to create gravitas from the ground up.

In moments when Rossum embraces Angelyne’s baby-voiced coo, or Linklater adopts an impossibly affected drawl; when the cinematography echoes the flat, arid L.A. light sliding against the neon; when Angelyne’s daydreaming becomes a full-on alien abduction fantasy to lure us into the larger-than-life corners of her mind. When it’s not overly concerned with selling Angelyne as The Original #Influencer, the show is freer to simply show us what it’s like to be Angelyne, in all her perfectly tacky glory.

As people (mostly men) keep trying to dig up the truth of who Angelyne is, and Angelyne keeps refusing to let them, the show flips its own narrative inside-out to emphasize just how conflicted her story continues to be. Record scratches interrupt one person’s memory to let Angelyne’s version of events make their grand entrance; someone from her past implores her to face reality as she rolls her eyes in both flashback and the present; figures and objects disappear in the blink of an eye as she rewrites her own memory. It’s the kind of device that can backfire, and sometimes does here. More often, though, it’s a reminder of how this show knows something “Inventing Anna” never quite grasped: that conflicting versions of the same story can be even more interesting in their clashing than in their unraveling.

All five episodes of “Angelyne” premiere May 19 on Peacock. P-MRC is the joint venture established in October 2020 by Penske’s PMC and MRC that brought the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Vibe under the same roof as Variety, Rolling Stone and other entertainment and lifestyle media brands.

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