The whole thing with Angelyne was that she didn’t have a story. Back in the early 80s, when she started popping up on billboards all over Los Angeles, she wasn’t selling anything but the idea of her own existence. She acted a little and sang a little, but mostly, she was a living image, a real-life Barbie doll inviting us to project whatever we wanted onto her intentionally blank persona.
Before the era of Instagram celebrity, the idea of purposeful emptiness was a novel one. She might have driven through Hollywood in a pink sports car selling autographs and merchandise, but Angelyne wasn’t knowable. She wanted our understanding of her to stop at the surface, because that made it easier to transform her into an icon.
But how do you make a five-part miniseries about someone who never wanted a narrative? That’s something Angelyne, premiering on Peacock May 19, never figures out. Instead, it delivers a mostly incoherent hodgepodge of formal experiments and storytelling tropes.
There are a few bright spots. In the title role, Emmy Rossum (Shameless) conveys a mixture of cultural savvy and affable warmth, and as the guy who funded her billboards, Martin Freeman (Breeders, Sherlock) sells the idea that a workaday schlub could fall for Angelyne’s vision of fame.
There’s also one genuinely thrilling bit of storytelling. Late in the first episode, we see Angelyne fighting with her boyfriend about his burgeoning career as a rock star. Halfway through the argument, she starts laughing and says that everything on screen is a lie, and then, right there in the middle of the scene, she “fixes” the details. She turns her boyfriend’s sports car into a crappy four-door. She replaces a billboard for his new album with a generic advertisement. She takes absolute control.
This scene works because Angelyne expresses herself from within the fiction, suggesting that she found strength by constructing her life on her own terms. Although the seriesreturns to this technique once more in a later episode, we're otherwise stuck with generic, mockumentary-style interviews, where Rossum and other cast members are put in old age make-up to give talking head rebukes to whatever we’ve just seen.
Even less interesting are a series of subplots about a reporter and a documentarian who each want to expose Angelyne’s life before she was a billboard queen. This material didn’t have to be dull, but there are fully two episodes that repeat the same revelations about her past, first from the filmmaker’s perspective and then from the journalist’s. Both times, Angelyne delivers the same frustrated responses that it’s nobody's business who she used to be. By the end of the second go-round, viewers will be able to quote the dialogue before they hear it.
Less conventional gestures also fail. In one sequence, when Angelyne tries to show the reporter what her world is like, she takes him to a party which transforms into a fantasy dance number. We see the reporter staring with amazement, but it’s never clear if he’s looking at the imaginary routine or at Angelyne doing something shocking at the real-life party. Either interpretation could work, but because of the muddled presentation, neither sticks.
The same goes for a later scene set in an imaginary spaceship. One imagines that it's meant to represent the cosmic expansiveness of Angelyne’s inner life, a tribute to her decades of commitment to her persona. But mostly, it’s a head-scratcher. Perhaps if the show had taken a cue from Angelyne’s billboards, it would have cut all this mess and embraced the value of doing more with less.
All five episodes of Angelyne premiere May 19 on Peacock.
Mark Blankenship is Primetimer's Reviews Editor. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.