Emmy Rossum in Peacock’s ‘Angelyne’: TV Review

Rossum plays Los Angeles legend and billboard queen Angelyne in this five-part limited series based on THR journalist Gary Baum's feature.

For Los Angeles residents, an in-the-wild Angelyne sighting is a rite of passage, like an earthquake or getting stuck in the extra-long In-N-Out lines after an awards show.

And, like the texture of the fries at In-N-Out, it can be difficult to explain Angelyne — the breathy, artificially enhanced “billboard famous” intersection between Barbie and Marilyn Monroe — to outsiders.

Angelyne

The Bottom Line Peacock is welcome to put 'Well, it gets better' on a billboard.

Airdate: Thursday, May 19 (Peacock)

Cast: Emmy Rossum, Martin Freeman, Alex Karpovsky, Hamish Linklater, Charlie Rowe, Lukas Gage, Michael Angarano, Molly Ephraim, Philip Ettinger, Antjuan Tobias, Tonatiuh and David Krumholtz

Creator: Nancy Oliver

Showrunner: Allison Miller

“No no no. That’s how they’re SUPPOSED to be.”

The desire to understand Angelyne was the impetus behind Gary Baum’s terrific Hollywood Reporter feature “The Mystery of L.A. Billboard Diva Angelyne’s Real Identity Is Finally Solved,” which left some readers enlightened and others lamenting that if the famous-for-being-famous legend didn’t want her “truth” revealed, that should have been her choice.

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That’s the push-and-pull behind Peacock’s limited series Angelyne, created by Nancy Oliver and developed and run by Allison Miller. Angelyne is a quintessentially Hollywood story of performance, reinvention and self-expression, an amusingly meta perspective on the entertainment industry as a dream factory in which “stars,” as much as movies or TV shows, can be the finished product at the end of the assembly line. The cleverness of Angelyne comes and goes and its intellectual points range from perceptive to half-baked in what ultimately feels like a Charlie Kaufman-lite feature film stretched — thankfully only to five hours — by the demands of streaming television.

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The “Choose Your Own Reality” conceit of Angelyne — in which she (played under increasing layers of latex by Emmy Rossum) tries desperately to retain control over her narrative and also over an imaginary documentary about her life through interjections, corrections and whimsical fabulism — is a good one.

That isn’t the same as having a storytelling structure, and Angelyne is distinctly lacking in structure. The last two episodes, based on the experience of a young filmmaker (Lukas Gage’s Max Allen) trying to make a movie about Angelyne and then focusing on the revelations in Baum’s (Alex Karpovsky as a renamed Jeff Glaser) article, are purposeful and occasionally delightfully strange. Above all, they give Rossum the nuanced material necessary for the awards play that is clearly the point of the whole endeavor. The first three episodes meander and are plagued by some truly lifeless performances from most of the series’ male “leads.” They might have bordered on intolerable if I weren’t watching for professional reasons.

There’s an hour spent on Angelyne’s early-’80s efforts to front a post-punk band, using her feminine wiles to manipulate guitarist Cory (a forgettable Philip Ettinger) and keyboardist Freddy (an even more forgettable Charlie Rowe) in order to become the centerpiece of their questionable music and their promotional campaign. There are two hours spent with Los Angeles printing mogul Harold (an overqualified Martin Freeman), who became Angelyne’s billboard manager, and Rick Krause (Hamish Linklater), who became her assistant and fan club manager.

Nearly every member of the cast, from Rossum on down, is drowning in questionable (especially when they get older) makeup, ridiculous wigs and goofball accents or vocal affectations, and to some degree I can accept that it’s intentional. Angelyne, as a public figure, is a portrait of escalating absurdity. But once she exists in a universe in which Linklater has a Dorothy Hamill haircut and a helium voice, Freeman has a tight Jewfro and an unplaceable accent, and every actor appearing in the later segments of the mockumentary have been aged up in what feels like a parody of This Is Us, it must be at least partially a double standard that causes us to judge her and not them. Hollywood does silly things to people and makes people do silly things to themselves, and perhaps it’s illuminating to accept Angelyne as the poster girl for that culture.

And by that standard, the usual critique that she became iconic for doing nothing is inaccurate. As interpreted by the scripts and by Rossum’s extraordinarily generous performance, Angelyne is always in on the joke — this isn’t always clear watching real interviews — and always in control of the artifice. It’s the truth that she can’t control, which is what makes Jeff/Gary and Max such a threat. The series lets Angelyne steer her own presentation for three hours, which I’d describe as an empathetic choice but also bad storytelling since those first three hours contain maybe 45 minutes of cumulative ideas and fourth-wall-breaking mirth.

The only way I can justify that first episode in my mind is that the writers must have thought they had eight or 10 hours to spend on this story and nobody had the heart to say, “Yeah, this isn’t entertaining enough for all of this time.” It’s as if Angelyne, like its subject, doesn’t necessarily want you to stick around for the truth.

As a character, Angelyne borders on critic-proof. Rossum is exceptional in the early stages of Angelyne’s life, when there’s a person recognizable underneath the augmentation, but she becomes increasingly less comfortable and more dead-eyed as the actress gets lost in the flesh suit and the voice goes from an act to a cartoon. But that’s the pathos of Angelyne as a character as well. Angelyne wanted to become something she wasn’t, she made herself into that thing and then she realized that she didn’t necessarily have anything to do once she got there, so she became aggressively adrift. There’s an interpretation in which that’s a sad journey, but that’s not how Rossum plays it and even Baum’s exposé only gets to the root of “before” Angelyne. What Angelyne is like today when she goes home after a day driving around in her pink Corvette selling merchandise out of her trunk is an intact mystery, and Rossum protects that, for better or worse.

The supporting cast is generally weakly used. All those men in the first couple of episodes are interchangeable. David Krumholtz gets the series’ “and” credit for looking confused for maybe five minutes in the fourth episode and I wonder if there were ever plans to use him more. Michael Angarano, the bridge between this and the fantasia of geriatric cosmetics that is This Is Us, is slightly affecting in a few scattered scenes as a man from Angelyne’s past with no character traits. Karpovsky actually does an uncanny take on Gary Baum, though that’s the sort of thing that may play better at staff screenings of the series or family reunions than in the world at large. My favorite performance in the show comes from Molly Ephraim as Harold’s actress daughter, who has a well-earned resentment for Angelyne because their aspirations for Hollywood visibility are so similar and their approaches are so different.

Directors Matt Spicer and Lucy Tcherniak can’t always build momentum in the series’ sluggish openers, but as the series gets loopier, with sci-fi elements and Brechtian theatrical pastiche, they hold the mish-mash between drama, comedy and anything-goes together. Angelyne is also a very good Los Angeles show, especially in its use of run-down Hollywood locations, as well as scenes shot in the old Hollywood Reporter offices (if you squint in the right direction, you could maybe spot my desk). And if geographic authenticity and visual caprice occasionally upstage the real story of its heroine? That’s exactly what Angelyne would want.