Both Alien and Alienated, Angelyne Is a Barbie Girl Without a Barbie WorldPhoto Courtesy of Peacock TV Reviews Angelyne
For a series intent on scrutinizing the launch of an LA local legend into notoriety, Angelyne’s first public major event spells out a major clue. As the frontwoman and lead singer of the short-lived band Baby Blue, Angelyne (Emmy Rossum) cartoonishly croons a two lyric song: “Kiss me LA // You know I’m getting off on you.” With her personal story so centrally wrapped up in the mythos of LA’s trappings—a glamorous place where make-believe triumphs over truth—the first line speaks for itself. But the second, gesturing at the sexuality with which Angelyne exuded from her billboards and over men, might be interpreted differently by viewers after watching Nancy Oliver’s miniseries. Getting off verbatim? Maybe, but it feels doubtful for Angelyne’s true motives within context. More convincingly, Angelyne appears invested in the project of getting away from anyone the “you” of her song could mean more than anything else.
As a five-part biopic on Peacock, Angelyne tracks the story of its eponymous lead’s path to stardom. Rather than give her account of an unorthodox rise to fame linearly (in this case, a plot to literally raise her image on billboards above the rooftops of the City of Angels), Angelyne leans into the slipperiness of her mystique. Like her trademark pink Corvette that she races down the road, Angelyne wants the public to remain inescapable of her, while she always secures a quick getaway car. The series embraces these tensions. Using shell narrative techniques, the viewer gets glimpses of Angelyne through those who seek to trap her or track her down: jilted lovers (Lukas Gage), devoted assistants (Hamish Linklater), dogged journalists (Alex Karpovsky, Charlie Rowe). Through an overarching documentary frame of all these former documentarians, Angelyne’s story turns into a woozy blur of perspectives of her own alien persona. It becomes clear that Angelyne wanted to become a Barbie girl at any cost, but desired to live in a Barbie world of her own creation—a consuming ambition-cum-obsession.
From a production standpoint, Emmy Rossum, both star and executive producer of the series, commits this continual splintering of Angelyne’s story almost to a fault. While Angelyne’s own narrative to herself becomes unreliable, the fractal framing and shifts into magical realism can make the series feel overstuffed, too imbalanced of a canvas for an already volatile source character. At same time, Angelyne, as a character for writing and within the plot, begs for maximalism. Her inability to live without it (or acknowledge a former self) proves to be the series’ most satisfying teaser. As the documentary approach marches down the question, “How did Angelyne come to be?” the more interesting question emerges as the simplest one: “Why Angelyne?” Why this particular blonde, hypersexual persona? What does the chase for fame offer her for being Angelyne?
If sex sells, and Hollywood does it best, there’s also a simple answer. Angelyne does seek to profit from her own image. But the series suggests that the Hollywood business of performance offered a fragile woman more than money. Fame opened a welcome way to lose herself, a forceful abandonment of self. While embodying a caricature of American female sexuality—Marilyn Monroe by way of Anna Nicole Smith—Angelyne gets men to eat out of the palm of her hand. She never enjoys her sexuality through the efforts of her sexual performance and surgical enhancements. Again, like the bubblegum Corvette, all of it is a vehicle to get away, most of all from herself and her past.
Early in the show, a young Angelyne confides in a suitor her deep admiration for Barbie. He responds to the effect that it makes sense for her to covet her blondeness. Angelyne gushes beyond her beauty, “She lives a painless existence. You can stick her with things, she won’t cry. Wouldn’t that be nice, not to hurt?” If anything, Angelyne commits to the work of humanizing formerly maligned sex symbols beyond the surface level. If the largest sex organ is truly the brain, both Angelyne the series and Angelyne, the woman, know that. What can the series make you think of her? For Angelyne, herself? The viewer learns that she hopes for nothing of herself: the two seater of her life does not have enough room for her previous self or past: You know I’m getting off on you. You know I’m getting away from you. More like: you know I’m getting gone.
Angelyne premieres Thursday, May 19 on Peacock.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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