The first three episodes of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy will undoubtedly stir up conversations and debate as the series dares to bring up old stories and open old wounds. The show leans into absurdity with an unnecessary amount of needle drops and a sometimes disturbing sense of humor, but the series is at its best when it cuts through the noise to find the quiet moments of humanity with Lily James as Pamela Anderson.
According to the creatives, Pam & Tommy should be an illuminating experience that re-contextualizes the narrative surrounding the criminal acts tied to the release of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape. Unfortunately, Pamela’s perspective (the one the series vows to prioritize) gets muddied in crucial points, like the real-life Pamela Anderson’s lack of endorsement and involvement in the show.
Because of that, the show feels like yet another exploitative trip. Craig Gillespie (who directed the first three episodes) also directed the award-winning film I, Tonya. This show explores similar themes regarding an event from the ’90s that centers on a famous woman. However, Tonya Harding‘s involvement with that film let her be a part of her reputation’s repair. That connection doesn’t exist with Pam & Tommy.
More dialogue around the public and mass media’s treatment of the situation is never a bad thing, especially as technology evolves in such a way where an invasion of privacy can happen to anyone. However, the definitive point is that these conversations have been happening for the last twenty years in various degrees of sincerity and research.
So, Pam & Tommy isn’t adding anything new to the discussion. It’s only making the story visually accessible to those who may not have read about it, or cared to.
TV shows have the unique ability to exist in people’s homes for weeks on end, encouraging empathy towards perspectives and situations they may not experience or understand otherwise. In that vein, Pam & Tommy has the opportunity to value Pamela’s perspective, but it takes the show too long to get there.
It’s already challenging to rally behind a project that brings a person’s trauma back under the spotlight without her involvement. So it’s frustrating that the first episode, “Drilling and Pounding,” is entirely dedicated to introducing Rand Gauthier (the man who steals and sells the tape) as the public’s eyes and ears into the world of mega-celebrities.
Metaphorically, Rand’s role as the audience’s insert is understandable since he represents the public’s complacency in viewing and spreading a private video with little to no consideration of its effects. The problem lies in the fact that no one is questioning the public’s ability to turn a scandal into a personal tragedy.
And that’s precisely why Pam & Tommy should have let James’ Pamela be the audience’s eyes and ears.
Pam & Tommy‘s weakest point by far is that it doesn’t value Pamela’s perspective as much as it supposedly set out to, or she would have been the primary focus from the beginning. She’s the one we are meant to connect with the most, yet she’s barely visible until the second episode. That this is a failure on the part of the show is only underscored by the fact that, when she is on screen, Lily James brings heart to a series that severely lacks just that.
James is immediately charismatic, thoughtful, and mesmerizing as Pamela Anderson. She disappears into the role through both her performance and her unrecognizable transformation. Seriously, the hair & makeup team should start preparing their Emmy’s acceptance speech now.
There are points when Pamela is genuinely relatable, heartbreakingly naive, and hopelessly in love. However, the moments of Pamela’s authenticity, introspection, and advocacy for herself are the ones that stand out the most in the first three episodes.
In the second episode, “I Love You, Tommy,” one such moment comes at the end, as Pamela serenades Tommy with a rendition of “Getting to Know You” from The King and I. It’s a device to highlight the newlyweds’ unfamiliarity, but it evolves into something more touching because of James’ performance. Through it, the show pulls back the curtain on her public persona and allows us (and Tommy) to see a more honest depiction of her.
That depiction is ambitious, romantic, and silly. Pamela’s complex, yet she has to be performative to men in suits in that same episode to ensure her career has longevity. It’s saddening to watch, and that feeling amplifies in the third episode, “Jane Fonda,” when Pamela confronts the men in Baywatch‘s video village about a cut scene with dialogue and depth in favor of a sexualized one.
It’s equal measures heartening and disheartening to watch Pamela want to control her narrative, like Jane Fonda. It only makes Pam & Tommy feel more like an impending car crash because that control and freedom only get further away from her — something that feels particularly poignant considering Pamela’s lack of involvement in the show.
Despite knowing how this story ends, James and Sebastian Stan try to capture the (often toxic) essence of the titular, whirlwind relationship. Their chemistry is fantastic, and they walk the tonal line of dark comedy well together. Namely, the newlyweds getting to know each other on the most basic level on their flight home from Cancún is absurdly awkward and funny.
Like James, Stan gives a strong performance as Tommy Lee, which isn’t shocking for the actor who usually disappears into his parts. Though, the contacts add an extra edge to his physical transformation. Sadly, outrageous elements like Tommy’s talking penis (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas) distract from Stan’s capabilities instead of letting him lean into an “edgy humor” that he can perform.
Ultimately, after three episodes, Pam & Tommy is still finding its footing and voice, and neither should have been up for debate this many episodes into its run.
Because of that, it’s worth asking if this show would work better as a movie. The story could benefit from a narrower perspective — Pamela’s. A film could have persuaded the creatives not to stray away from her so often. Consequently, the show has yet to give an overwhelmingly convincing argument it should exist.
It all goes back to the fact that the narrative themes become null and void with the ever-present reminder that the real-life Pamela Anderson did not consent to this venture. Sure, the sets and props are accurate. The hair and makeup are award-worthy. The performances (namely James) are truly outstanding. But at what cost?
What did you think of the first three episodes of Pam & Tommy? Let us know in the comments below!
New episode of Pam & Tommy stream Wednesdays on Hulu!