Pam and Tommy – Limited Series Review

Pam and Tommy

  • Creator: Robert Siegel
  • Starring: Sebastian Stan, Lily James, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling

Grade: B

Color me surprised that, when browsing the full list of credits for Hulu’s new limited series, Ryan Murphy is nowhere to be found. Among his exhaustive resume as a writer, director, and producer, Murphy has become ubiquitous in the last few years, especially with his American Crime Story series, as re-investigating moments that broke through pop culture – particularly moments that painted certain people in negative lights without giving them their own platform. This recent phenomenon isn’t exclusive to Murphy, though, as podcasts (Slow Burn), documentaries (Framing Britney Spears), and more television shows (When They See Us) have made a big impact in the way we think about celebrities – in one sense of the word or another – and their often tarnished legacies. 

Pam and Tommy; Hulu

It’s in this vein that Pam and Tommy operates, by giving the full story behind an infamous moment which changed the way we think about celebrity privacy and sexuality. The titular pair, of course, is Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), whose sex tape was leaked in the late 90s and whose careers and personal lives were forever linked to the scandal. But the show is equally interested in the lives of those responsible for leaking the video and what led to that decision. Indeed, the first episode – not so subtly titled “Drilling and Pounding” – is almost exclusively devoted to Rand (Seth Rogen), a carpenter initially tasked with building the newlyweds’ new home, until he’s fired by Lee as an excuse to not pay up for the work. Broke and angry, Rand devises a scheme to break in and steal whatever he can from Lee and Anderson’s home without even knowing what he’s in for. Rogen plays Rand as a confident buffoon, a student of all religions who believes in karma but also doesn’t feel like waiting around to receive his due rewards. This isn’t an example of a comedic actor going dramatic like Bill Murray in Lost In Translation or Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, but Rogen rises to the occasion in the early episodes.

Meanwhile, episodes two and three devote more time to Anderson and Lee and how their whirlwind romance came to be. Sebastian Stan plays Lee very much as a dumb, lovesick puppy once he meets Anderson at a nightclub, full of energy and verve and nobody else to expound his love to. But Lily James is especially fantastic as Anderson, and Pam and Tommy devotes much of its third episode to show her as a capable and ambitious actress, brushed aside by the show that made her a star and only seen as a sex symbol. Her monolog in the third episode, in which she lays out her hopes for her career trajectory,  is equally impressive and sad, now that we have the gift of hindsight. However, as entrancing as Stan and James are, I find myself hoping the rest of the series devotes more time to Rogen; the former pair have already had their time in the spotlight and given the chance to defend themselves, whereas Rand is a virtually unknown character.

Pam and Tommy; Hulu

The first three episodes – which are available now on Hulu, followed by weekly installments throughout its 8 episode run – are all directed by Craig Gillespie, and they each contain his signature style, for better and worse. Gillespie has often received comparisons to Scorsese in his camera and music usage, and Pam and Tommy is no exception. Much like Cruella, his most recent directorial effort, Pam and Tommy barely lets more than one scene go by without some sort of needle drop, and the effect can be grating before long. The music choices are often effective, and not as glaringly obtuse as they were in Cruella, but I was left wishing we could just sit in the moment more than once. Similarly, many scenes of dialogue feature at least one dolly zoom, which is a dynamic way of filming dialogue but rarely feels warranted. The effect is intended to give weight to a line or bit of news that one character gives, but when it’s used so frequently, its effectiveness wears off before long.

Pam and Tommy’s opening episodes don’t provide much in terms of what the rest of the series will look like; they’re more focused on setting up the characters and their dynamics. But James, Stan, and Rogen provide a stable and likable base to rest a series on.  The show is at its best when it allows its stars to dig into these larger-than-life personalities and show who they were outside of the tabloids. One smartly executed bit of character insight involves Pam and Tommy awkwardly coming home on a plane after their whirlwind romance and wedding, asking each other their favorite movies and foods, et cetera.

Pam and Tommy; Hulu

Episode one opens with a recreation of Anderson’s appearance on The Tonight Show, with Jay Leno sorta creepily interrogating her over her personal stance on the sex tape and its release. The first three episodes understandably don’t touch on this aspect but I can only hope the show pulls its focus away from Lee and Anderson and comments on how the media and culture reacted in its aftermath.

If Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, and Hannah Fidell – who direct the remaining episodes – continue to mimic Gillespie’s stylistic flourishes, it won’t be the end of the world, but it can easily lose its luster over the course of almost 5 more hours. Though the plot becomes a little predictable overall, there’s an insight to the characters that’s more accessible than the Rolling Stone article that the show is based on. Also, Jason Mantzoukas makes a voice appearance as Tommy Lee’s penis, so I at least have to see where that leads.

The first 3 episodes of Pam and Tommy premiere on Hulu on February 2 with subsequent episodes released every Wednesday.

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