There’s a moment in Pam and Tommy episode 2 that’ll make you wonder if you’ve hit ‘play’ on the wrong TV show. It’s a scene so humorously obscene that it wouldn’t feel out of place in Amazon’s adaptation of The Boys.
And yet here it is, taking pride of place in a Hulu and Disney Plus miniseries. Have we completely misjudged the tone of the upcoming drama series? And, given the real-life scandalous event that Pam and Tommy is based on, is this TV adaptation a comically unjust depiction of what actually occurred?
No, in both cases. Pam and Tommy is an electrifying, drama-fuelled retelling of the infamous 1990s tale that’s more poignant, thought-provoking and amusing than it deserves to be. Yes, its sparkling cast and bombshell of a storyline will draw you in. But it’s the series’ exploration of sensitive and controversial topics – press intrusion and revenge porn to name just two – and parable-style storytelling that’ll spark debate long after the credits have rolled.
The greatest love story ever sold
Based on the incredible true story, covered in extensive detail in Amanda Chicago Lewis’s absorbing 2014 Rolling Stone article, Pam and Tommy tells the tale of how the celebrity couple’s homemade sex tape became the first-ever viral porn video.
Fired by Lee (Sebastien Stan) for his supposedly shoddy work on Lee’s home and for allegedly spying on Anderson (Lily James), disgruntled carpenter Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) steals the couple’s safe as collateral for the wages that Lee owes him.
Discovering the sex tape as part of the safe’s haul of treasures, Gauthier decides to exact revenge for his dismissal on the newlyweds. Teaming up with prominent porn producer Milton ‘Uncle Miltie’ Ingley (Nick Offerman), Gauthier uploads the tape to the nascent internet – a decision that has major consequences for all involved.
Unsurprisingly, the uploading of the sex tape and subsequent fallout, serve as the meat of the miniseries’ plot. From a narrative perspective, though, Pam and Tommy takes a while to actually get to the sensational moment in question.
The series premiere primarily follows Gauthier, the events leading to his dismissal, and the ensuing home break-in that sees him come into possession of the tape. The next two episodes cover Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Lee’s whirlwind romance – a frenetic 96-hour affair that ends with the duo eloping in February 1995 – and Gauthier and Ingley’s masterplan coming to fruition.
Story-wise, then, there’s plenty to set up – so much so that Pam and Tommy’s earlier episodes could have ended up being dull affairs. The sex tape’s website doesn’t actually go live until episode 3’s end, by which point we’ve already sat through a third of the miniseries’ episodic run.
Thankfully, though, the show’s charismatic leads (more on this in a bit) and well-paced story beats – such as Gauthier’s struggle to secure funding to release the sex tape worldwide – ensure that the show’s early entries are still enjoyable. None of them really outstay their welcome, and each provides some intriguing and relevant backstory ahead of the events yet to come.
Once the explosive central incident occurs, though, Pam and Tommy becomes a truly captivating watch. The simmering tension, which has been building up to this point, erupts into a captivating game of cat and mouse between Gauther and Uncle Miltie, and Anderson and Lee. Gauthier desperately tries to evade the private investigators and biker gangs that Lee sets upon him, while Lee and Anderson simultaneously are left reeling by Gauthier’s vindictive act and the media storm that follows.
The sex tape’s release into the public domain is the catalyst for Pam and Tommy to become a multi-genre show, too. The miniseries remains a drama at its heart, but its ability to fluidly transition between comedy, romance, and crime thriller – there are even subtle shades of horror – allows the tension to ebb and flow as needed. This suspense keeps viewers guessing about where the next twist is coming from, although some land better than others when they eventually arrive.
Star turns and thematic burns
Movies and TV shows are only as good as their casts – and Pam and Tommy’s main players are undoubtedly at the top of their games.
The pre-release images of Stan’s and James’s physical transformations, into Lee and Anderson respectively, demonstrated the level of authenticity that’s gone into the series’ production. And, while the show’s trailers teased the duo’s realistic portrayals of their real-life counterparts, the series unquestionably proves that they’ve nailed Lee and Anderson’s mannerisms, accents and personalities.
Many viewers will recognize Stan as Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Here, though, he’s a man transformed, bringing Lee’s potent mix of brashness, arrogance, playfulness and alternating laissez-faire/hot-headed attitude to life with aplomb. Stan’s charming and energetic depiction is so wonderful, in fact, that you can’t but root for him on occasion, even if he’s depicted as a nasty piece of work. Although the less said about his questionable Greek accent, as showcased in episode 3, the better.
Rogen also excels as the aggrieved Gauthier, his comedic background elevating scenes where the at-times bumbling construction worker is well in over his head. His personal issues are relatable, and it’s understandable why he makes the decision to leak his former employer’s sex tape, given the manner of his firing in episode 1. But his retaliatory act, in uploading a deeply intimate moment between two individuals, is sure to position him as a tragic villain among some viewers.
Stan and Rogen’s skilful capture of the dual aspects of Lee’s and Gauthier’s personalities elevates their performances, and should ensure that audiences are conflicted over where their allegiances should lie.
It’s James, though, who steals the show as Anderson, with her bit-part role in the opening chapter making way for a colossal performance that bears the emotional weight of the whole series.
James is physically unrecognizable from her Downton Abbey days as the ex-Baywatch superstar, yet it’s her dichotomous portrayal of a by-turns vivacious and melancholic Anderson that radiates through the entire show. James does a stellar job of presenting Anderson’s vibrant, outgoing and confident persona – a public face we’re all familiar with. But it’s the way in which she captures Anderson’s underlying unhappiness, forged by the misogyny of a male-dominated industry and objectification by fans and the media (and humiliation by lawyers in later episodes), that’ll resonate most with viewers. Combined with the powerful chemistry she shares with Stan, James delivers an emotionally titanic portrayal of an industry icon who inadvertently bears the brunt of Gauthier’s revenge porn scheme.
Away from its dazzling cast, Pam and Tommy is dripping with thematic imagery and commentary. From the nail gun, hammer, and champagne cork-popping euphemisms to its superficial ‘be careful what you wish for’ message, the series is packed with motifs, both amusing and serious.
It’s the topic of relevance, however, that underpins Pam and Tommy thematically. Lee struggles to stay relevant in a music industry that’s moved on from Mötley Crüe’s glam metal aesthetic and sound in favor of the emerging Nirvana-led grunge scene; a relic of a bygone era.
Gauthier wants to be relevant in a world that treats him as a nobody, even if it takes an infamous act to do so. Anderson, meanwhile, is already relevant, but not in the way she hopes to be – an actor who wants to change the entertainment industry, but who’s viewed simply as a sex symbol.
Ironically, it’s this through line that continues to bind these characters after the series finale, too. It may be the sex tape that brings them together, but it’s the deep-seated similarities in their character arcs that truly connects them.
Pam and Tommy is an engrossing, drama-packed and surprisingly tender tale about the pitfalls of fame. Its infamous tale and sparkling cast will grip you initially, but its karma-centric parable, humanization of its characters, and intimate moments are what make it shine as a spectacle.
The show’s revisiting of the 1990s – a time capsule of now-embarrassing fashion choices, cultural nostalgia, and the early wild west days of the internet – is a fun ride, and fans of adult humor will certainly get their fill of R-rated content and quips. Some jokes, though, land better than others. And, from a soundtrack standpoint, some odd choices have been made – even if particular songs have been used as mood-setters, rather than being in keeping with the time period.
Still, such issues are minor quibbles. Pam and Tommy is Hulu and Disney Plus’s first ‘must-watch’ show of the year that, but for its early 2022 release, would certainly be in the mix for the 2023 awards circuit. Just don’t expect that amusingly lewd episode 2 scene to be part of any award conversations.
Pam and Tommy’s first three episodes will launch on Hulu in the US and Disney Plus in the UK on Wednesday, February 2. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly.