Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Pam & Tommy is a blast. It’s a throwback to the time when the Internet barely existed, but it could be used to propagate a stolen celebrity sex tape that set tons of wheels in motion and threw a wrench into a love story that strongly resembles the Angelina and Billy Bobs and the Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Foxes of later days. And it’s sort-of a heist story, which could have been all fun and games if it hadn’t hurt someone in such a devastating way. So, it’s a trashy, guilty pleasure of a show that sparks some hindsight-guilt about not being able to look away from someone else’s misery. The eight-part limited series could also, in places, make you really think about heavier issues like consent (through a 2022 lens) and how “wild” women are positioned vs. their equally (or even more so) wild male counterpoints.
With that said, my reactions to this trash-masterpiece are a direct response to fears that I had about the series, so let’s break them down that way:
(1) Is It A Show That Lives Up To The Trailer? The art of trailer editing ain’t no joke. We have all seen trailers that would have been better off staying trailers (I recall vaguely thinking that the Mark Wahlberg-starring Max Payne looked cool, my god it was not), or trailers that feel like they show off the entirety of a film or limited series. The best ones accurately represent the quality/enjoyability of a project without giving the whole thing away, and I mean, c’mon. This show’s trailer is phenomenal and a testament to everything (bad) that people loved about the mid-1990s, a time of too much garishness, which we can all vicariously roll around in while feeling filthy. And speaking of filthy…
There’s Sebastian Stan really going for it as Tommy, walking around with tattoos and his tush (and more) hanging out. To elaborate on more, Jason Mantzoukas voices Tommy’s penis, which is as amazing of an experience to behold as you can imagine. There’s Lily James pulling off an almost spooky dead-ringer version of Pam. There’s Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen’s mulletted bad guys, who don’t turn out to be as satisfying as the trailer promises, mostly because there’s some complexity to be discussed (and we will).
The trailer could have led us astray, but it did not. As strange as it sounds to emphasize this point, a lot of the offbeat, salacious offerings on streaming fail to live up to what’s promised in trailers. Remember that Sasquatch trailer that made people really want to watch a weed-infused Bigfoot documentary? And then you didn’t hear too much about it because the weirdest stuff was in the trailer. Well, Pam & Tommy poised itself for danger in the same way, but there’s a lot more there. It’s truly stuffed with madness.
(2) The Feels Stuff: With all of the above said, this is all based upon a real-life story (as originally detailed in 2014 within a Rolling Stone piece by Amanda Chicago Lewis). Pam Anderson did not co-sign this adaptation, which adds an extra layer to watching. And obviously, we’re talking about real people, to whom something dreadful happened. Real intimate moments got captured on tape and stolen and distributed to the masses.
Real people with real emotions. Real rawness and true conflict and pieces moving in the background. Many details are, yes, dramatized and may not match what actually happened, but the spirit, presumably, stays real. It does, however, feels a little bit icky to paint this as a big sympathy story for Pam — although it certainly is at times — because she’s already been subjected to enough bullsh*t already. Not only did her personal life become very public, but geez, all of the Baywatch and Barb Wire fallout is really something to watch. No one ever called her Oscar material, but girlfriend had drive and a work ethic, and we might never know if she had could have moved past eye-candy roles.
Pam largely gets a raw deal in this story. So all we can do is this: Judge ourselves accordingly by our responses to what we see. Every woman has a valid right to have a response to what happens to Pam with the sex tape — which she and Tommy could have never imagined would fall into the wrong hands and spread through the fledgling Interwebs — and every woman who goes some similarly horrid thing (and this is an early instance of revenge porn, propagated into oblivion by Rogen’s character, Rand Gauther) has the right to feel endlessly violated. Yet Pam & Tommy threads the needle well. It doesn’t get preachy but it also doesn’t shy away from harsh truths, at least as it supposes them to be. And in the end, it’s up to the viewer to decide everything. The show stands apart from the E! True Hollywood Story approach, that’s for sure.
Let’s just say that this show does a fine job of not glossing over Pamela’s palpable discomfort over being repeatedly humiliated by this sex tape, but it doesn’t beat us over the head with it. And as unfortunate as the reality was (again, they never reasonably could have expected this tape to get out), this show gives this the most sensitive treatment as one could expect while still taking the salacious route.
3. Are the villains worth the price of admission? Here’s where the weakness lies. Gauthier’s trajectory is perhaps my least favorite part of this show, even though Rogen kills the role, for the most part. He’s very good at injecting emotion into a guy who managed to roll a giant safe away (what a visual gag) without getting caught. I’m not sure how on earth this could have gone down with the sheer size of this safe, which held fancy watches, a guitar, even the “wedding bikini” inside. But his path and evolution do not feel authentic. Nick Offerman is fine as the porn-producing godfather, Milton Berle (a.k.a., “Uncle Miltie”) of the show, even though he is ultimately underutilized in this story. And who knew that this dude could rock a fanny pack so hard.
(4) Is This Series Actually Perfectly Cast, Or Do They Simply Look The Parts? The hair and makeup teams did the thing, but it’s damn well cast, too. From Taylor Schilling (whose porn star character appears to be a throwaway at first but who ends up doling out some necessary perspective) and Andrew Dice Clay, even the smaller roles work. Lily James nails everything she does, from the flashbacks of Pam’s talent scout discovery to her first Playboy shoot, all the way to the uncomfortable moments on the Baywatch set to moments where she’s asked to justify how she did public nudity in other contexts. She must show the audience how terrible it can be to be completely in love, only to end up a casualty of a stupid, avoidable beef between two men.
Sebastian Stan manages to toe the line of being the starting point of that beef. Tommy Lee was a jackass in a lot of ways but he’s essentially also a doofus with too much money and power. Stan must, as well, deliver occasional flashes of heartfelt emotion to show us that Tommy does truly love his wife, even if he loves himself more. And Tommy feels sorry for himself several times along the way, during contexts that are best watched, rather than spoiled, while also being the owner of a talking penis. Stan’s so-called “Sunday workout” also paid off in spades. The man has a way with drumsticks.
As the bad guys, again, Offerman ultimately plays a facilitator of helping Rand Gautlier strike a near-fatal blow in that dumb beef with Tommy. We don’t get to see Offerman do too terribly much, unfortunately, but Seth Rogen does well with being the every-mulletted-dude, who does an incredibly vengeful, immensely sh*tty thing that exposes him as very bad person. And he’s also a punchline, which adds to a careful balance that Rogen deserves credit for because it couldn’t have been an easy role, for sure.
(5) And The True Emmy Goes To…? Jason Mantzoukas as the talking penis. Zouks reminds us that even though very serious subjects arise in Pam & Tommy, at least the penis had no ulterior motive, and we can all lighten up and enjoy this show, guilt free.
‘Pam & Tommy’ will debut with three episodes on Feb. 2, 2022.