Ask anyone outside of Los Angeles who Angelyne is, and you may be greeted with a confused shrug. But for Angelenos of a particular generation, she was a hyper-local legend: the mysterious blonde bombshell who suddenly appeared on billboards all around the city in 1984, offering little elaboration besides her name in hot pink lettering and her busty frame in one pin-up pose or another. She was “famous for being famous” long before Paris Hilton or the Kardashians, selling nothing more (or less) than herself, riding around in her bubblegum-pink Corvette and signing autographs at 35 bucks a pop.
But who is Angelyne, anyway? The answer, as posited in Peacock’s limited series about the figure, is “whatever Angelyne wants herself to be.” Based on Gary Baum’s articles on Angelyne for The Hollywood Reporter and created by Nancy Oliver (“True Blood,” “Six Feet Under”) and showrunner Allison Miller (“Brave New World”), “Angelyne” makes merry play of the lines between identity and delusion, and does it with all the bubbly verve of the real-life figure it’s digging at. It’s brilliant stuff.
“I am not a woman,” Angelyne (Emmy Rossum) coos to herself in the opening moments of the series. “I am an icon.” Her eyes are closed, her delivery sure; in the parlance of our times, she’s manifesting. She shapes her reality, and over “Angelyne”’s five episodes, that need for control over her own self-perception—and our perception of her—extends to the aesthetic fabric of the show itself. What results is a winking camp opus about the liberating power of delusion, and just how far you can take a fantasy if you can get everyone else to believe in it along with you.
Each of the series’ five episodes, directed by Lucy Tcherniak (“The End of the F***king World”) and Matt Spicer (“Ingrid Goes West,” another arch tale of a woman reinventing herself in LA), largely center themselves around the people—mostly men—who’ve been sucked into Angelyne’s gravitational pull and slingshot out the other side, supporting players in her rags-to-riches-to-??? story. There’s Freddy (Charlie Rowe), the himbo rocker whose up-and-coming rock band Angelyne Yokos her way into, and promptly destroys to build publicity for herself. There’s Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the unassertive billboard printer who gets roped into being Angelyne’s manager by sheer force of will; Max Allen (Lukas Gage), who tried to film a documentary about her in her later years to no avail; Jeff Glasner (Alex Karpovsky), the fictionalized version of Baum who tries to dispassionately investigate her past; the list goes on. Frequently, we cut from the action to stylized, Errol Morris-esque talking head interviews explaining the ways Angelyne evaded or hurt them.
But then! “Ew, gross,” Angelyne pouts in response to a particularly salacious detail. “That did not happen.” She takes control of the narrative again, and suddenly we’re seeing things from her carefully curated perspective. She’s the kind of woman who has invented herself, her life, and her persona from whole cloth, and used her magnetism to evade any inconvenient bursts of reality that might encroach. “Angelyne” realizes this in darkly-funny detail, right down to characters from her enigmatic past blipping from the screen the moment she decides they don’t exist.
The show’s clearly a passion project for Rossum, herself looking for a transformation of sorts after her nine-season run on Showtime’s “Shameless” as the practical, pragmatic daughter of a working-class Chicago family. Where Rossum’s prior roles saw her as the sensible brunette, her Angelyne is a wide-eyed, bottle-blonde, hot pink Christmas decoration; she titters like Betty Boop, dispensing one florid pearl of wisdom after another (“I strive for a painless existence”) in that breathy Marilyn Monroe voice. Much like Lily James in “Pam & Tommy” last year, Rossum dons a 30-pound breastplate and all the foot-high blonde wigs she can muster to capture the real Angelyne’s cartoonish proportions. She commands the room, demanding all eyes on herself and only letting the barest crack of a real self through; it’s a remarkable study in manufactured perception.
By God, the layers of artifice work like gangbusters: after all, Angelyne, like Rossum, are both women looking to redraw themselves to show the world what they can do, to demand the attention they feel they deserve. “Marilyn didn’t rest until she was famous,” she says early on; it’s clear, even before the final episode where we get a peek at the real woman’s pre-Angelyne childhood, that the Hollywood star was a pivotal figure in her life—a bright, cheery sex symbol everyone who mattered wanted to look at. And in LA, where everyone is clamoring to be seen, Angelyne knew exactly how to make it happen, even if she didn’t have the pipes or the acting talent to leverage it into an actual career in entertainment. All other details that disrupt that illusion are inconveniences to be excised.
It’s this push and pull between competing truths that make the show so deceptively funny, and sets it apart from the glut of recent miniseries about controversial real-life figures we’ve had to wade through lately. Where Elizabeth Holmes or Adam Neumann sold a lie, Angelyne sells fantasy; the stakes aren’t lives or livelihoods, but whether or not she gets to maintain her beauty, allure, and mystique. She surrounds herself with sycophants (her most loyal being Hamish Linklater’s uproariously slavish assistant Rick Krause), and carries an uncanny ability to spin any negative circumstance as a positive—or pretend it didn’t happen altogether. (Rossum’s husband, “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, also produces here, if that’s any indicator as to the mega-meta antics the show eventually bleeds into.)
Whether you’re learning about Angelyne for the first time, or a longtime fan hoping for an entertaining overview of her legend, there’s a lot to like here. Yes, you’ll get a few glimmers of insight into what made the real figure tick (though don’t hold out hope for a cameo), a few layers peeled back into one of LA’s most bombastic, bimbo-tastic mysteries. But “Angelyne”’s true strength lies in its nuanced embrace of the lie, reveling in the hot pink happiness she gives herself and her fans for merely existing while acknowledging the hurt and confusion she inflicts on those in her wake. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder; the same goes for fame.