Reviews · TV

‘Pam & Tommy’ is as Humanizing as It is Entertaining

Hulu’s series about the celebrity sex tape scandal that rocked the ’90s mostly forgoes salaciousness in favor of empathy for the couple at its core.
Pam and Tommy
By  · Published on January 28th, 2022

Pam & Tommy thrives on small, private intimacies. In a scene at the beginning of the series’ fifth episode, rock star Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) and model/actress Pamela Anderson (Lily James) lay on the carpeted floor of their home next to a teddy bear. The bear was meant for their baby, but they’ve just suffered a miscarriage. They lay there, locked in a quietly sad embrace, whispering about dinner plans and work events while their sadness looms around the edges of the conversation.

It is an extremely personal depiction of a moment from a real-life marriage. It feels so vulnerable that it can’t help but remind us that none of this is really any of our business. That is, of course, the whole point of Pam & Tommy. The eight-episode limited series, which is directed mostly by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie, reframes the true story behind the famous couples’ honeymoon tape, a love-infused home video that ended up at the center of the 1990s’ most lurid public scandal.

Pam & Tommy is humanizing and romantic, even if it doesn’t entirely elide the sensationalism at its story’s core. It’s part biography, part stranger-than-fiction tale, and part early internet cautionary tale. Stan and James, nearly unrecognizable, guide viewers through with committed and generous portrayals of two people whose lives were turned into a punchline. Gillespie’s energetic camera loves them and meets them where they’re at, whether that’s a booze-soaked meet-cute, a tense legal meeting, or in that scene on the living room floor.

From episode one, Pam & Tommy works hard to correct the public record. The series introduces its story through the vindictive eyes of a contractor and former porn actor named Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen, who developed the series). While working on Tommy Lee’s dream home, Gauthier sees the worst of the rocker, who refuses to pay him and eventually chases him off the property with a gun. This is a difficult point from which to start a series that wants us to fall at least a tiny bit in love with Tommy, but it does the necessary work to establish Gauthier’s motives. He returns weeks later in the middle of the night to pilfer a safe that includes guns, jewelry, Pam’s wedding bikini, and an inconspicuous hi8 tape.

The rest of the series tracks that tape’s movement from the floor of Gauthier’s apartment to the eyes of millions of Americans. Along the way, he gets involved with an unfocused porn director called Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman) and a mob financier (Andrew Dice Clay). Gauthier’s interest in karma and various religious theories leads him to believe he’s on a noble quest, but he also wants to impress his ex, Erica (Taylor Schilling). His is a different kind of insecurity than Tommy’s, but both of the men who orbit Pamela’s story are driven by their own sense of insignificance.

When he’s not waving guns around, Tommy Lee ranges from charmingly lovestruck to annoyingly off-putting. He’s the type of guy whose boundaryless immaturity leads to moments like the one when he hangs a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his erection during the couple’s honeymoon. In a moment that echoes a passage from the real-life musician’s memoir, he talks to his famous member and it talks back — in Jason Mantzoukas’ voice, no less. This is one of a few key scenes in Pam & Tommy that misses the mark. It feels endless and ridiculous, and nothing else in the series is ever as tasteless or surreal.

Gillespie’s previous collaboration with Stan, I, Tonya, received some criticism for its borderline humorous depiction of domestic violence. That trend doesn’t continue here, but the two seem to understand that serious anger can often come from men whose worst fear is getting laughed at. Tommy and Pamela are playing out their own period-specific version of A Star is Born: she’s landing starring roles while his albums are relegated to the clearance section.

Pam & Tommy isn’t the most precisely crafted pop-cultural revision in recent memory, but it bears the same satisfying polished-up sheen as prestigious series like American Crime Story. Filmmakers make unexpected choices throughout the series, and most of them pay off. When Pamela and Tommy get the news about the miscarriage, it’s in a scene we barely see or hear, shot through the small window of a hospital room door. It’s a small but impactful gesture, a bit of privacy they were never afforded in real life.

Less effective is the presentation of the sex tape itself, which plays so often around the edges of scenes that its giggly exchanges and exclamations may as well be the series’ official score. This is, of course, Stan’s and James’ reproduction of the real tape, and it’s surely meant to signify just how inescapable it was at the height of its proliferation. The tactic backfires and instead makes us feel as if we –and the series itself — are party to the exploitation of Pamela Anderson all these years later.

Because, of course, it all comes down to Pamela. Her name is on the web page that rocked the early internet, and on the deposition when the couple’s battle for privacy turns legal. Crucially, Pam & Tommy loves and empathizes with the woman at its center without ever diminishing her complexity.

James disappears entirely into the role, playing Pamela as a shrewd businesswoman, a lover of romantic comedies, and a small-town girl who longs equally for both motherhood and professional recognition. In one of the series’ best scenes, she does her first shoot for Playboy. She clearly feels empowered and is treated respectfully and professionally the entire time. It’s a loving portrayal of beauty and sexuality that lets all the air out of the argument that she somehow deserved the mistreatment that came after.

Pam & Tommy would’ve been an empty exercise if it hadn’t poured its heart into the woman at its center. The series’ very existence threatens to reignite the same tired attitudes as the sex tape itself, but it’s built as a remedy to all that. It’s a compelling retelling of history, one that hinges around an epic, untenable romance and the public’s own amoral appetites. “We’re so good together, Pamela,” Tommy insists late in the series. “It’s the world that’s f***ed.” He’s certainly right about that last part.

Pam & Tommy premieres on Hulu on February 2nd.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)