The Angel of Vine Review
By Matthew William
Let’s start out by saying that The Angel of Vine is one of the best audio dramas out there. Produced by Vox Populi, it has accrued 651 iTunes reviews worldwide, with a 4.8 average star rating at the time of this article’s writing. So it’s fair to say it’s popular, as well as high quality.
The first thing you’ll notice is the all-star cast (especially by audio drama standards), with Joe Manganiello in the lead as Hank Briggs, Camilla Luddington, Oliver Vaquer, (who also wrote the show and plays the NPR-style journalist host) Misha Collins, Mike Colter, Alfred Molina, Khary Payton, Alan Tudyk, and Constance Zimmer. Veteran voice actors Travis Willingham, Matthew Mercer, and Nolan North round out the cast.
For those of you who haven’t heard it yet, here’s the official synopsis:
The Angel of Vine is a noir tale told in true crime style. The “podcaster,” a journalist named Oscar Simons (Oliver Vaquer), is fascinated by cold cases. One of the most infamous is “The Angel of Vine,” a gruesome murder in 1950s Hollywood. Young aspiring actress Marlene Marie Evans was found in a parking lot, her body mutilated and posed, with evidence either nonexistent or destroyed when she was discovered by a stampede of curious onlookers.
The police gave up with no leads, and the case would never be closed… or would it? Ex-cop and private detective Hank Briggs (Joe Manganiello) may have solved the case, but he never told a soul. It’s up to Oscar to search through Hank’s mountain of tapes and clues from more than 60 years ago to uncover the killer.
With near perfect production values, acting, and story, there is very little to complain about. It seems they have achieved a new gold standard for audio drama production. I could wax lyrical about how great the show is, and I feel like most reviews have been doing just that. But, I do still have a few nits to pick.
Now, the dialogue is mostly good. I can see how some people call it stiff, but that’s sort of the point. 1950’s noir is sort of stiff. But the dialogue didn’t pop the way it does in, say, Double Indemnity, and I was never surprised or felt as if I was listening in on a conversation. It felt as if I was listening to the main character uncovering the plot points and nothing more.
For example, in the first six minutes of Episode One, when the daughter describes going to the house where her estranged grandfather had been living, she suddenly starts describing the old car in the driveway in graphic detail for some reason:
“Old car. Not a classic car. An 83 Cutlass Ciera. Hadn’t been maintained in years. A fender was rusted. Cobwebs around the hubcaps. The felt from the interior ceiling was sagging.”
This might play into the “film noir” style they’re trying to affect, but it felt too much like a school report to me. “I’m describing the setting here! Aren’t you immersed?”
The character development also could’ve used a bit of work, as the main character Hank Briggs, is a little too one dimensional.
I get that it’s a noir, but characters, especially lead characters, need to be more nuanced: he’s into poetry (which feels a little shoehorned into his character), we’re told multiple times that he has a great sense of humor, and he had scenes with his daughter where he shows a tender side.
But overall I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it was directed with the words, “Okay, you’re a 1950’s Brooklyn tough guy, fugettabout it!” in pretty much every scene.
At the end of the day, maybe it was for the best, because when he’s confronted with the gruesome climax, he is truly shaken and that’s what shakes us. We hear him crack, so what he sees must be really bad. So, from that point of view, I really can’t fault the choice.
But the good far outweighs the bad.
Oliver Vaquer had the unenviable task of making something that sounds both conversational and journalistic, set in the modern day and in mid-century LA. In the end, I feel like I took a tour through old-school Hollywood. That’s a hard trick to pull off.
The writing does a skillful job of using the audio drama format, with the conceit that the main character was always carrying a recording device with him. And the descriptions of the crime scenes will send chills down your spine (no pun intended). I’ve even heard it said from multiple people that it took them awhile to realize they weren’t listening a true crime podcast.
The acting is one of the key things responsible for that. Vaquer as the journalist is very believable, and the genuine performance convinces you this is a real cold case investigation. Alan Tudyk is incredible in his role as Samuel Tensch. I didn’t feel like he was an actor at all, rather a living breathing character. And Alfred Molina has acting superpowers. His character, Leonard Shaw, is so over the top awful, but he delivers the lines so perfectly that when he later starts talking about his health problems, you somehow start feeling sympathy for the guy. My goodness.
That said, I wish there was a better female part. The players are largely male, and the story could have really used a femme fatale type. There are a lot of women in the cast, Constnace Zimmer and Camilla Luddington are given 2nd and 3rd billing, respectively, as a mother and daughter pair, but they aren’t given much to do. (I can’t even really remember anything the mother says or does, besides constantly sounding a bit tired.)
And how fantastic is that theme song? I mean, seriously, I could write a whole article on that. A modern take of a 1946 song “Angel Eyes” that really sets the mood and makes you feel like you are in old-school LA.
There are ads tucked into the show, as most podcasts do, but one particular Johnnie Walker ad blew my mind. Not long after a Johnnie Walker Blue Label ad, the characters in the show sit down for a drink of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
“I think it’s the perfect way to mark the moment,” the character Beth Turner says, somehow quoting the slogan perfectly.
Production isn’t really my area, so I don’t have an insider’s perspective, but to my ears, it’s more or less perfect. The sound effects were immersive and never pulled me out of the story. They do an amazing job at making the old sound old and the new sound new.
This is definitely a show I would recommend, without hesitation. It is excellent in almost every area, but I had one major issue with it, which unfortunately pertains to the ending. So…
MAJOR SPOILERS from here on out: (I mean, if you haven’t listened to it already, what are you doing? Go and download it immediately.)
First off, the story endings feels flat and unsatisfying.
We go through this whole investigation to try and figure out who killed the Angel of Vine, and in the climax we finally learn that it was Samuel Tensch – the man who was paying Hank Briggs to investigate the crime.
Then we get the explanation as to why he committed the grisly murder and it was because… he was crazy!
And that’s pretty much it.
The thing about a mystery is, when it’s finally solved, you are supposed to go: “Ahhhh, of course, I should’ve seen that coming. All the pieces fit together now” not: “Oh, uh… okay, I guess.”
As soon as I heard the last episode, where we learned Samuel Tensch was the killer, I went back and re-listened to the previous episodes, to see if I missed anything – any bit of foreshadowing, or clues, or any hints that this character is maybe hiding something.
But nope. There’s not really anything.
There’s a brief mention of a mysterious fire, where his mother figured died, and we later find out he killed her and he caused the fire to dispose of her body. But there are no motivations, no clues, no nothing. We just find out he was disturbed and used his victims blood to make paintings.
I know real life serial killers and murderers don’t always have a satisfying motive, and the pieces don’t always fit together into a nice coherent narrative. This could be the show paying homage to such unsatisfying endings in other popular true crime serials, but we expect our stories to be better than that. Especially mysteries.
Despite all this, the Angel of Vine remains a can’t-miss podcast. I just wish the writing was a little stronger. But they left the story open to interpretation: either the killer is still at large… or Hank killed him. We’re probably going to be getting more seasons to find the answers.
And that’s definitely a good thing.
Now ‘scuse me while I pop open this bottle of unbranded, not-paid-to-advertise bottle of whiskey, the perfect way to mark the moment of finishing off a review.
♫ Oh, where is my Angel Eyes?
Excuse me while I disappeeeeear…♫
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