“Angelyne” tells the story of someone who’s famous for being famous. Yet she created that fame from nothing, by transforming herself into an icon. She drafted a community that she could relentlessly take advantage of, but one that argues it gets more back than it puts in. Telling its story according to a roster of unreliable narrators, the series is exciting because it confronts how one woman can repaint reality, and how those around her repaint it once more. Layer after layer of misrepresentation offers very few truths, but rather the shape of something we can begin to grasp.
Emmy Rossum plays Angelyne, a real-life figure who popped up on billboards in L.A. during the 80s and 90s. She had a small band, but they weren’t her path to fame. The mystery of who this person is, why she’s suddenly everywhere – that created the fame. It wasn’t an outside marketing push either; she convinced a billboard company to start posting her picture all over the city.
“Angelyne” tells her story – and the story of those around her – in a faux documentary format. I avoid the term mockumentary because it’s not as straightforward as that genre’s premise. Interviews shape each episode, shifting from one set of characters to another in order to introduce possible frameworks of truth. The bulk of each episode happens in those flashbacks, but there’s no solid omniscient or filmmaker’s perspective here.
The genius of Rossum’s performance isn’t that she’s playing a character well, it’s that she’s playing a character well who’s playing Angelyne – sometimes well, sometimes unevenly, sometimes learning how to play Angelyne better. Angelyne as a celebrity icon is as much a place to hide as anything else, a shield from engaging the world on its own, often unfair terms. Early on, Angelyne talks about living a “painless existence”. She sees her own story as malleable, her own past as unimportant. Details take the shine off the mystery. If who she is needs to be constantly mutable, then details are antithetical to Angelyne existing in the first place.
The best parts of “Angelyne” center on the clashing truths of its bevy of untrustworthy narrators. An early scene features Angelyne’s boyfriend Cory describing their breakup. She’s jealous that his single is getting radio play, that he has a billboard before she does, that he has some fame rather than acting as a stepping stone to her own. In the middle of her temper tantrum, she coldly stops to point out this isn’t how it went. She literally drags Cory onto another set, where he grudgingly takes his place in her version of the scene – in bed with another woman. Based on the performances and some logic, we can take away that her version of the scene is likely the real one, but it’s not always quite this clear.
Even our understanding of Angelyne – as narcissist, a manipulator of others, obsessed with her own fame, renegotiating others into corners – is founded upon a reaction to intergenerational trauma, loss, child abuse, Hollywood misogyny. There’s a complex well of truths to draw from, and no compass for how and where each is relevant.
Angelyne is a cultish narcissist who saps others of years of their lives, who redirects their dreams so hers can feed on them. Angelyne is a feminist reaction to the 1980s and the role women were expected to play, someone who only ever played the game exactly as the men in Hollywood do. Angelyne is a beautiful self-expression of someone realizing who they want to be; Angelyne is a survival mechanism that shelters someone who never had a chance to discover who she wanted to be. All of these things are true, especially the parts that don’t agree.
It sells the mystery of the show: who is Angelyne? That’s a feat when my initial thought would be why should I care about a forgotten 80s icon who was famous simply for being famous? But there’s something in the heart of Rossum’s portrayal that communicates a woman haunted by something, trying to erase her past while using those around her to Positive Think her way into a new reality where none of it matters. What that pain is, why it needs running away from, that’s what makes Angelyne matter.
If Angelyne is the shelter from it all that she lives inside, how does that speak to others who also face something they have to escape? Is that her appeal? Is she a safe space not just for herself, but for fans who recognize they need a similar shelter? And how does this interact with her manipulation and harm of those closest to her?
This is what makes Angelyne’s determination to control her narrative compelling, even if that means lying about the facts as that narrative is told. There are good and bad reasons, and every other unreliable narrator disagrees how the scale tips between them.
The series also takes its most dramatic moments and transforms them. Drama is uninteresting to “Angelyne” because it conveys trauma rather than escaping from it. Camp and kitsch are far more interesting, because these are visual expressions and celebrations of that escape. The moments where Angelyne escapes, or helps someone else feel like they’ve escaped their burdens, are sometimes literal flights of fancy. Camp gives us emotional answers while being uninterested in the precise, logical ones.
There’s one scene where a reporter talks about Angelyne showing him who she really is. They enter a mansion’s front hall – which also happens to be space featuring a surreal, kitschy dance number. It makes no sense whatsoever, and yet it’s an emotionally complete answer.
At times, “Angelyne” is genius. Yet as it gets more precise and reveals more about her past, the camp stops fitting as well. It’s hard to say if this is a shift from Lucy Tcherniak to Matt Spicer as director, or simply the script having to describe lawsuits and the harder details of Angelyne’s past. The show gets to an incredibly high plateau midway through, and finishes very solidly, but its strength rests in those moments where Angelyne fights over the narrative and reality.
As we’re told more single truths, instead of trying to figure out what truth is from a morass of elements, the show gets heavier and more dramatic. What could earlier be fused to camp underpinnings doesn’t fit cleanly anymore. Perhaps this is necessary and inevitable, but as a show there’s an alchemy it reaches that starts to fall a little out of balance. It’s not enough to ruin anything – the show’s still extremely good. There’s just some really heightened storytelling in this that I wish could have pushed through that last step.
It’s one of the best shows of the year, with one of the best performances of the year. Expect a biopic or drama and you’ll be disappointed. If you like metaphor through camp and kitsch, it offers a complex portrayal with some stunning moments.
You can watch “Angelyne” on Peacock.
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