The streaming era has changed how we define entertainment (or content, to borrow industry jargon).
Creators have the flexibility to explore and experiment with different formats and mediums for their stories. They aren’t married to the 22-episode television season or the two-hour theatrical window, not when streaming services are salivating for new content. The complexity of the storytelling landscape has offered up opportunities to stories that previous eras might’ve passed over. It has also allowed some stories to abandon the rules of restraint and structure, for better or worse.
Consider Pam & Tommy, the Hulu limited series about how the world collectively lost its mind over the stolen sex tape of notorious ’90s celebrity couple Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. This seminal moment in pop culture is ripe for modern reconsideration. It touches every cultural force you can imagine: celebrity, wealth, privacy, misogyny, the law, the Internet, and of course, sex. The story is so thematically complex that, upon first glance, it needs a limited series. How do you possibly unpack everything that Pamela and Tommy went through, especially Pamela, in a two-hour film? Surely you can’t.
It’s solid logic, but Pam & Tommy proves that unpacking everything might not necessitate a miniseries either. The critical problem lies with how the series’ narrative engages with its central couple. Pamela (Lily James) and Tommy (Sebastian Stan) and their whirlwind romance should be the primary focus of the series that bears their names, but it’s not. The couple shares a startling amount of narrative space with Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier, the disgruntled carpenter who robbed them and sold their sex tape to the world. The series casts Rand as a foil to Tommy’s smarmy volatility and jackass antics and a folk hero of sorts, fighting for anyone slighted by an aging, rambunctious rock star.
Indeed, Rand is a somewhat sympathetic character at first, dealing with Tommy’s ridiculous demands and unhinged threats. There is a palpable sense of humor-laced joy in seeing him succeed in stealing Tommy’s safe. However, Rand has two problems. One, he was never going to be as interesting to watch as Pamela and Tommy. Two, he committed a terrible crime and humiliated a woman who did nothing to deserve it.
Seth Rogen’s admirable performance aside, Rand nor his backstory are compelling enough to warrant the screen time it receives, especially in those critical first three episodes. His abusive childhood, nor his brief, erstwhile porn career, justify cutting into Pamela and Tommy’s story, nor does it contextualize his deplorable actions. Rather than being the entry-point into the Lees’ rollercoaster lifestyle that he should’ve been, Rand is a diversion from who we’re here to see. Shoehorning in his story makes Pam & Tommy feel overextended, which a limited series should not be.
Pam & Tommy comes alive when it delivers Pam and Tommy. The second episode feels like the series’ true beginning, detailing how the Baywatch star and the Mötley Crüe drummer fell in lust with each other over two weeks. It’s unhinged, bizarre, outlandish chaos, and it’s delightful. There’s partying, drinking, drugs, face-licking, property damage, screaming, and oodles of sex. There’s also genuine, sweet affection between this ill-advised and inevitable pair. They use their post-wedding flight from Mexico to get to know each other, bonding over french fries. They sing and dance around their bedroom to The King & I. Tommy encourages Pamela’s acting career and insists she push back against the writers who cut her big monologue. It’s clear that, in the very beginning, Pamela and Tommy cared for each other and wanted their marriage to work.
What is less clear is Pamela and Tommy as individuals, which directly impacts how they came together and their unique reactions to the sex tape leak. The series doesn’t give much insight into who they are or might be beneath their public personas. Pamela feels particularly shortchanged. Given the series’ aim to reckon with the misogyny she experienced in her career, it doesn’t grant her much agency. Real-life interviews with Pamela present a woman who, like Marilyn Monroe, was brighter and savvier than anyone gave her credit for. The series hints at it, especially as the fallout from the sex tape crystallizes, but it’s not a concrete character trait. Instead, it falls back on what audiences might expect of Pamela. Tommy fares a bit better as he grapples with his musical irrelevance and his helplessness in stopping the tape’s spread. Still, it feels like the script isn’t digging as deep as it could into either character.
It’s a shame because Lily James and Sebastian Stan do excellent work revealing dimensions of their characters that the script doesn’t fully flesh out. James may have the best character transformation of the year, vanishing body and voice into the role of Pamela. James pushes hard against the ease of caricature or impersonation to show how Pamela’s steadfast and somewhat reckless approach to romance competes with her career ambitions. Stan wears Tommy’s chaos exceedingly well and shines in unexpected moments of tenderness, vulnerability, and even child-like wonder. Together, they have the fiery, somewhat dangerous sexual chemistry to sell this off-the-rails romance.
It’s strange to argue that Pam & Tommy doesn’t entirely work as a miniseries because its lead characters are underdeveloped. Bringing it back to logic, it would dictate that the solution is to add additional episodes, to have enough time with the major players of this sordid tale. I wonder, though, what Pam & Tommy would’ve looked like under tighter reins, with the story streamlined to focus squarely on Pamela and Tommy. Without Rand and the mechanics of leaking the sex tape, we might’ve gotten a sweet but searing look at an unlikely relationship undone by a terrible crime and the forces that amplified it beyond reason.
Pam & Tommy is undoubtedly fun and relevant, but, given what it could’ve been, it’s hard not to feel screwed.