For anyone thinking that Hulu’s new limited series, Pam & Tommy, is a gratuitous attempt to capitalize on our society’s twisted celebrity culture by aiming a lens at two of the most notoriously glorified tabloid-bait fame whores of the past thirty years, you would be absolutely right. However, in the hands of Craig Gillespie, the director of such recent bravura genre-bending extravaganzas as I, Tonya and Cruella, Pam & Tommy is not only every bit as irreverent as you’d hope it to be but is also a most intoxicating blend of parody and social commentary, delivered with an adrenaline rush of raunchiness that makes it one of the most exciting things seen on television in a very long time.
The first three episodes of the eight-episode series set the scene and introduce the main players in the based-on-a-true-story that comes off as more of a reality rock opera than it does any standard genre. The basic premise of the series is to tell the behind-the-scenes real-life story behind the release of the infamous unauthorized Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex tape. This stolen video was privately shot by the famous married couple during their honeymoon. It found its way to becoming one of the first viral videos, thanks to its timing coinciding with the emergence of the internet.
The timing of the scandal makes Pam & Tommy so fascinating when seen from a historical perspective. The mid-‘90s marked the birth of the world wide web and a wider, more commercial use of the internet for things like email, online chat rooms and web-based shopping. As the technology was rolling out, it was still being used only by those who were the savviest, able to navigate its potential, who saw opportunities to take advantage of its still as yet below-the-radar wide reach.
By 1995, the year that Tommy Lee, the drummer of the ‘80s hair metal band Mötley Crüe and Pamela Anderson, the Playboy Playmate-turned-actress star of the hit television show Baywatch, got married, it wasn’t a matter of if something was going to be the first thing to go viral on the web, it was when—and what. Call it a perfect storm, but the scandal turned out to be the beginning of a new era in America, one that merged two national obsessions: the internet and celebrity. Oh, and one other American obsession: sex. If ever there was the perfect series to illustrate everything that makes America tick, it’s Pam & Tommy.
The first three episodes, all directed by Gillespie, sets the stage as we are introduced to Rand, played by Seth Rogen, a carpenter who is working on a renovation of Tommy Lee’s bedroom in his Malibu mansion. When Tommy, played by Sebastian Stan, a notorious “bad boy” who revels in his wealth and fame, fires Rand for no good reason without paying him, Rand is desperate for revenge. He steals a safe from Tommy’s house, thinking he’ll just get some guns and cash. When he discovers a small, black tape and plays it back to find an explicit, privately-shot tape of Tommy and Pamela having sex, which was shot during their honeymoon, Rand knows he’s sitting on a goldmine. He just doesn’t know how.
Fortunately, Rand was once a bit player in the porn business, so he calls a porn director friend, played by Nick Offerman, and the two of them shop the tape around. But, because it’s unauthorized, no legitimate distribution company will touch it. It’s then when it dawns on Rand to explore this new thing called the “world wide web,” to see if maybe that would be a way to get the word out about the video and to, somehow, figure a way to make money without getting caught.
Meanwhile, we are also introduced to the whirlwind romance and marriage of Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, aka Lifestyles of the Rich and Horny. Sebastian Stan’s Tommy Lee is everything you hope he would be, a larger-than-life ego-maniac with an appetite for sex, drugs, and living large. He struts around his mansion in a silk robe and g-string, soaked in booze and sex, doing everything short of howling at the moon. It’s impossible to understate how magnetically-charged Stan’s performance is as Tommy, a character that looks as much fun to play as it does to watch, and, boy, does Sebastian Stan look like he’s having a blast. It’s impossible to tell if it’s being played straight or as a parody because, honestly, who could tell the difference. And it’s here where Gillespie is like a kid in a candy shop, unleashing his unique brand of genius, blending camp with curiosity, reality with circus-like fantasy.
The early and easy laughs come at the juxtaposition between Rand and Tommy, the poor, shy, unattractive working-class laborer with the jorts and the mullet, next to the famous rock god, with his tattoos, diamond earrings, and outsized personality. But Gillespie mines so much more than the obvious in the scenes between them, finding humor in little moments and asides, playing up the contrast in the understated, soft-spoken Rand to Tommy, the arrogant, clueless bully.
But the best scenes from the first three episodes are, of course, the ones where we get to see Sebastian Stan and Lily James go full-tilt bat-shit crazy as Tommy and Pam, a couple as made for each other as penicillin and gonorrhea. You wouldn’t think any other performance could rise to the crazy level as what Stan does, not, that is, until you see what Lily James does with Pamela Anderson. While there is much more of an emphasis on Tommy Lee in the first three episodes, Pamela Anderson does get her time to shine, especially in episode three, where she reveals her more thoughtful and human side, expressing her desire to be taken seriously as a real actress, citing Jane Fonda’s career as her inspiration. This is only after being pursued, literally, by Tommy Lee, who falls in love with Pamela after meeting her at a party and decides to follow her to Mexico, where she is vacationing with friends.
After just four days in Mexico, Tommy Lee is so confident that Pamela is the one for him that he proposes, and the two are married on the beach just four days after meeting. This chain of events does not sit well with Tommy’s penis, which has enjoyed being the beneficiary of Tommy’s playboy lifestyle, and expresses itself very clearly, as a prosthetic, anatomically-correct, CGI-enhanced animatronic appendage, in a scene that can only be described as “not suitable for Mom and Dad.”
The talking penis may sound strange, but it fits in perfectly in the bizarre world of Pam & Tommy, one that is amusing and thoroughly entertaining, bawdy and unrestrained. It is refreshing to see a series embrace its raunchiness with such glee, unashamed of and reveling in these characters’ insatiable appetites for one another. But the extra additive to the series that takes it to a level that rises so much higher than Tiger King standards is the tenderness offered by these characters.
Even though Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee can be easily dismissed as rich white trash, they are actual human beings, and their vulnerabilities and insecurities are revealed when the surface is just slightly scratched, and the performances from Stan and James truly embrace both characters in all their contradictions. James especially hones in on Anderson’s desire to be taken seriously as an actress, and we almost feel sorry for her when those attempts are rejected.
Kudos to creator/showrunner Robert Siegel, who also co-wrote all eight episodes, for giving us the most entertaining, energetic, and massively addictive series of the year so far. Hulu smartly is only dropping the first three episodes now, making us wait for the rest to drop weekly on Wednesdays. Who knows what the rest of the series will bring, but if the first three episodes are any indication of the insanity, weirdness, excess, and fun that is still to come, then we are in for one hell of a ride.
Pam & Tommy is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes dropping every Wednesday.
Originally published on WeLiveEntertainment.