The Hulu dramedy gets plenty wrong and plenty right in its chronicling of this mid-90s celebrity royalty couple.
One thing Hulu’s new miniseries Pam & Tommy, executive produced by Craig Gillespie (who directs the first three episodes) gets consistently correct is the weird sense of vertigo that sets in returning to the mid-’90s. Especially if you lived through it the first time. The conflicting feeling of similarity and vast difference can be overwhelming at times. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
That, of course, is the hook of Robert Siegel’s take on the Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) sex tape scandal. This couldn’t happen today, but something else, something similar? Definitely. Does the fact that we’ve evolved a small amount regarding the exposure of celebrities’ private sexualized material change many people’s kneejerk reaction to Lee and, especially, Anderson? Sadly, I expect not.
The series is at its best when making this point purely by showing us what actually happened. Nothing makes the truly hideous way society treated Anderson clearer than a recreation of her appearance on The Tonight Show. Appearing to promote Barb Wire, Anderson instead has to sit through questions about her stolen video. Jay Leno (Abam Ray) is so glib about the sex tape it’s hard to read it as anything but inhumane. To pretend it wasn’t a thing was probably an impossibility. To make the video the centerpiece of the interview, though, was a deliberate act of cruelty.
Less successful are the moments where the show doesn’t trust the audience to get it. For example, Rand (Seth Rogen)–the man who stole the tape as an act of revenge–discloses what he did to his ex Erica (Taylor Schilling). Her reaction is a terse monologue about the difference between the video and porn. Unfortunately, none of it sounds like it is coming from someone in the mid to late 90s. Schilling is great in the scene, a tightly spun tower of rage threatening to unravel. But her words are pure 2022, dotted with signifiers of the current conversations about sex. No point the speech makes is wrong, but the sense of “these idiots won’t get this unless we literally say it” derails the moment.
Despite… gripes, the series is an undeniably compelling piece of television.
Pam & Tommy struggles with character ambiguity as well. Anderson, played by a thoroughly transformed James, is the strongest member of the ensemble. Her take on the model-actor makes her empathetic without veering into saintliness. The scripts get how Anderson could be both naïve and seriously ambitious, impulsive and thoughtful. Despite the prosthetics, hair dye, and makeup work, she never really looks like Anderson, but how Lily uses her voice and physicality quickly erases any uncanny valley concerns.
Lee proves a far more slippery subject to nail. The show can’t seem to get a handle on who the drummer was at his core. In the first episode, he comes across as the stereotype of an entitled out-of-touch celebrity making wild demands and dripping with “I’m just like you but better” condescension when talking to Rand and his crew. One could argue we see the rocker from Rand’s perspective but a discussion several episodes later confirm the events we saw were more or less accurately depicted.
After that first episode, Lee continues to be reckless, self-involved, and prone to fits of temper. However, that initial version never returns. It is such a big swing that you can’t help but be waiting for him to return and when he doesn’t, it leaves a bad taste. Obviously, Pam & Tommy wants us to empathize with Rand and Lee, but only making the drummer a brief cartoonish monster does no one favors. Especially not Stan, who plays all the notes given to him and does so well, but when the script can’t find a center point, the actor is left to careen from moment to moment without internal consistency. It’s almost impossible to make the character that cheats Rand out of thousands of dollars fit with the one that moons over his old Mötley Crüe sales figures.
The ending also grates. The reality of both Anderson and Lee’s lives after the sex tape is not a great one: stalled careers, arrests, multiple failed relationships, and their unshakeable connection to the video. However, the ending and final crawl seek to wrap a bow on what will likely always be unresolved. The attempt to tidily tie it up feels too easy.
Despite these gripes, the series is an undeniably compelling piece of television. When not just saying them, Pam & Tommy has pointed out insights about celebrity culture, the media, and America’s ongoing struggle to treat women we find attractive who enjoy sex for themselves. Even when the script sometimes hangs them out to dry, the cast is strong. It generally resists too many “the ’90s were weird, right?” jokes, except for the internet. It’s definitely worth a watch. In the end, its messiness feels like both a negative and a reflection of the era it covers. The ’90s were a strange shaky time masquerading as the progressive new stability. For a show to do it justice, being inconsistent and a bit convinced of its own moral strength makes a certain kind of sense.
Pam & Tommy is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes airing Wednesdays.