Lily James captures the Baywatch star's soul, but the miniseries bundles a fascinating tale with a couple less fascinating tales.
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Pam & Tommy has a great story to tell, and it almost does. The new eight-part limited series (premiering February 2 on Hulu) finds Pamela Anderson (Lily James) at her crescendo. She's a Playboy sex symbol and Baywatch star with a new movie and a new marriage. The first time she gets naked with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), the camera stares at their bodies — at their full-frontal, public-size privates — with ravenous awe. They are '90s gods approaching a hell millennium. Soon, their stolen sex tape traps Pamela in worlds of terror: the legal system, an uncontrollable new digital age, America's love-hate relationship with celebrity, general corrosive masculinity.

"There are so many angles to it!" one character actually says. "Technology, celebrity, privacy!" Bad dialogue, good point. James is so British that she played Lady Whoever on Downton Abbey, but even Pamela Anderson was a weird choice to become Pamela Anderson, a "good Christian girl from small-town Canada" transmogrified into a breathy neo-Marilyn rocking red swimwear. Buried in a makeup mountain and two key prosthetics, James nails the icon's persona of bemused what-me-naked? innocence — and uncovers raw personal pain.

Pam & Tommy
Sebastian Stan and Lily James as Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee in 'Pam & Tommy'
| Credit: Erin Simkin/Hulu

And Stan is...okay, I guess? The endless first episode focuses on a showdown between the rock star and Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), a regular schmo working on the Lees' decadent mansion. Stan looks happy to be not wintry soldiering, swaggering around in just undies and tats, wielding thousand-dollar guns and a general Get Naked attitude. His impersonation is more haircut than heart, though, and the whole & Tommy portion of Pam is surface-level. You could be watching any meh musical biopic where characters say things like "I got bad news for you, Third Eye Blind!" In the finale, a bunch of grunge fans sneer at a Mötley Crüe performance; it is one of the least believable period-piece sequences I've ever seen.

Meanwhile, Rogen does the whole comedian-goes-serious thing where his only visible emotion is confusion. Rand is the focal character in the premiere, and it's a pitiable portrait. He's a washout porn star with a tragic mullet who can't even afford to divorce his all-but-ex-wife (Taylor Schilling). When he steals Tommy Lee's safe, it's almost a righteous act of showbiz class warfare. His famous victims have it all, and then some. The second episode tracks Pam and Tommy from their first meeting (with Goldschläger) to their quick courtship (in Cancun) to their wedding (on a beach) and back to Malibu (chased by paparazzi). If you want the nostalgia carnival, episode 2 will do it for you. By way of declaring his love, Tommy tells Pamela: "Next to you, Carmen Electra is a hag!" He also talks to his penis (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), which begs him to "keep this p---y train rolling!" and not get married. ("Denise F--ing Richards? You saw her scoping you out at the Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion!")

The Big Short didn't have any talking penises, but that Oscar-winning screenplay full of celebrity-explainer tangents and direct-to-camera cheekiness opened the floodgates for a new era of hyperbolized true-life stories. Pam & Tommy's early episodes are directed by Craig Gillespie, whose I, Tonya was another scandal cartoon full of broken fourth walls. The Rand subplot unfolds with purposefully comedic excess. When he discovers a certain personal tape inside the stolen safe, he seeks help from Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman), a porno producer with connections. Various dudes-doing-crime montages ensue. I suspect the creators of Pam & Tommy would note that the series is meant to be a satire or something, purposefully over-the-top (and maybe purposefully unrealistic) in the search for deeper truth. I don't know; I sense a lack of confidence in the complicated material. Who wants to watch a web of lawsuits? Bring on the needle drops and Offerman going all Scarface!

But Pam comes to vital life when it focuses on Pamela and her place in the tape's ascension to cultural prominence. The middle episodes zero in on her struggles — and are notably shorter, with less contrivances. In the midst of various personal and professional crises, James has to believably play both an unwitting bystander and an objectified object of fascination. A ghoulish smile-through-the-pain visit to Jay Leno's Tonight Show is especially moving (and even more depressing than just watching Leno's Tonight Show). Knowing nothing but what I read in the papers, I have a sense the real-life Pamela Anderson is maybe 37% savvier than this show's sensitive dreamer. But you're convinced by James' pain, and her bafflement. She seems to be inventing internet paranoia, the fear of a great all-seeing world-eye invading your defenses. It's a gendered violation that Tommy can't be bothered to understand.

Even at its best, though, Pam & Tommy is a bit soft on the details. As the series goes along, Pamela's girlfriends disappear, and her mother only pops up in flashbacks, even though you'd think those women would have something to offer her amidst the tabloid imbroglio. A heavenly depiction of the Playboy Mansion comes off rather shallow, not to mention poorly-timed. Past a certain point every supporting character feels like a composite, and a late face-off between Rand and Tommy is hysterically unconvincing. There's something outright gutless in the fairy-tale vision of the central relationship. It's a romance of musical serenades and goofy flourishes that barely acknowledges the marriage's harsher realities. Pam's heart is in the right place. I just wish it didn't waste so much time dicking around. B-

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