tv review

Pam & Tommy Reveals the Story You Don’t Know — But Also Kind of Do

Photo: Erin Simkin/ HULU

Pam & Tommy begins with a bet: that you will look at the images of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, and you will snicker. Their style and personalities are so outlandish, especially from the enlightened perspective of 2022. Tommy, as played by Sebastian Stan, is a lanky, overornamented toddler, covered in tattoos and chunky piercings. Lily James’s Pamela is every pin-up doll come to life, all blonde hair, plumped lips, and plumped boobs, with narrowed eyes that could read as emptiness or wariness.

There’s a corollary to that bet: not just that you’ll laugh at Pam and Tommy, kissing each other in public with a style that can only be described as “tongues stuck to a wintry flagpole,” but that you’ll immediately sympathize with their frustrated home contractor, played by Seth Rogen. We know this story. They are absurd, and Tommy in particular is cruel and violent. Rogen’s character, Rand Gauthier, meanwhile, is trod-upon, maligned. The villains and the victims are clear. Rand, furious that Tommy refuses to pay his home-renovation bills, pulls off a heist and steals the Lees’ safe, which contains jewelry and weapons and, most notably, a private sex tape. One thing leads to another, and Pam and Tommy’s video is swiftly elevated to national infamy, the young internet’s first viral sensation.

But the last few years in pop culture have also made clear the arc of a miniseries like Pam & Tommy, the first three episodes of which premiere on Hulu February 2, with the remaining five entries rolling out weekly on Wednesdays. In the tradition of I, Tonya, Free Britney, Lorena, AHS: Impeachment, and the You’re Wrong About podcast, Pam & Tommy is framed as a delicious, much-longed-for upending. Inevitably, we will discover, our unexamined assumptions about this story were wrong. At the very least, things were more complicated than our highly reflective 1990s lenses allowed us to understand at the time. What if Pamela is not just a laughingstock, but a human being? What if being stiffed for a bill did not justify Rand’s actions? What if Tommy … okay, Tommy was an abusive dick, and probably we should still look at him that way. But also, what a dick! It is, as the show’s Tommy puts it, “eight, eight and a half … not that I measure.”

As an entry in this genre of period-piece redemption arcs, Pam & Tommy fulfills the brief. Its portrait of Pamela is overwhelmingly sympathetic, and James and Stan are incredibly effective in these roles. Their chemistry has that incredible capacity to make something clear that you didn’t quite grasp before. There are moments of real sweetness in their relationship, but they’re also physical with each other in ways that shift our perspective on the sex tape without having to resort to big, blatant, overly explanatory lines of dialogue. Stan will kiss the back of James’s hand, and the way her face softens and relaxes out of its brittle too-wide smile is such an effective way to underline their humanity. For so much of the assumed discourse around Pam and Tommy, it’s not really the widespread availability of the tape that turned them into jokes. It was the existence of the tape itself, instantly confirming the already widespread perception of them as tawdry, cheap, and too sexual. The performances here are so physically present and responsive that the sex tape becomes lovely — it was an object of scorn; now it’s a pure, sincere home movie, made by people whose entire understanding of themselves comes from what they look like and how the world interprets those looks.

With subjects so hyperfocused on how things look, it’s appropriate that Pam & Tommy is as well. Stan’s transformation into Tommy is impressive, but is largely about performance — he throws his arms wide and he hurls himself at people, every second approaching an edge of rage that could spin into violence. James’s Pamela is an incredible combination of performance and honestly astonishing feats of hair, makeup, and wardrobe. It’s a “so close but not quite exact” physical mimicry that could easily approach the uncanny valley, but every shot of Pamela is persuasive. She is a person who looks like this and who has participated in dramatically exaggerating her appearance because it’s been useful for her. She’s also trapped by the way she looks and is only beginning to understand that what might have felt like a conscious decision to turn herself into this sex object was partly the result of external pressures that she did not fully appreciate.

The tone and construction of Pam & Tommy has a playfulness that makes a good match for the early days of its subjects. They seem incredibly in love and also adorably naïve, and it’s conveyed well in scenes like the one where Pam makes Tommy watch The King and I, or one particularly notable exchange between Tommy and his own animatronic cock (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas!). The series does, however, fall into a trap that many, many shows now do too frequently, by bouncing around back and forth through time. First it’s Rand’s perspective on Tommy; then it’s Pam and Tommy’s origin story; then back to the early days of the marriage; and then later, back once again to the start of Pamela’s career. It’s a frustrating narrative tic, but there is one meaningful effect for Pam & Tommy: Because it begins with Rand, it also begins with the worst of Tommy, scenes where he is emotionally horrible and physically violent to people doing their very best to please him. All the other hop-skipping time jumps are frustrating, but this choice has real weight. Even in the later episodes, where he’s at his sweetest and most undeniably charming, it’s impossible to forget the version of Tommy we meet first.

For all of its success, Pam & Tommy also falls short in the way that many of these Hindsight Is 20/20 projects tend to do. It revisits a cultural watershed moment and reframes the participants from a contemporary perspective, and it has the grace to not be smug about its modern, supposedly enlightened point of view. (There are a few moments where it does revel in how far we’ve come, but surely no one would begrudge the series its ridiculous scene of Pam and Tommy rolling up to the Malibu Public Library, desperate for access to a modem so they can find their own video.) Still, like several of the other series in this genre, Pam & Tommy struggles to land on an ending. So, Pam & Tommy says, we were wrong about Pam, and maybe we also misunderstood Tommy. The “we” there is always a little fishy, always involves its own level of underexamined cultural presumption. That aside, the narrative impulse is to reach for a conclusive button, a way to soothe away the unfairness or find a last twist of the knife.

Neither is easy for Pam & Tommy. The ending of the tape story, its eventual digital ubiquity, isn’t even thanks to Rand, and Rand was neither punished nor made to really reckon with his actions. Tommy and Pam both faded into background cultural punch lines, a form of erasure the show also doesn’t know how to cope with. It reexamined them, sure, but it stuck with the most interesting parts, the parts people already sort of knew. What happened to all the later years? Or, in other words, what should an ending look like? It’s not a question Pam & Tommy really knows how to answer. Still, until that point, its cultural excavation is entertaining and comically sexy and scary and sad, a bit provocative. It’s enough to satisfy that cultural-revisitation urge: the desire to be surprised by a story you thought you already knew.

Pam & Tommy Is the Story You Don’t Know — But Also Do