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When it comes to private recordings of celebrity intimacy made available — generally through illegal means — on the Internet, we’ve collectively become pretty glib.
We joke about stars and their sex tapes, and add mention of the scandals permanently to their resumés as a source of shame — as if Apple didn’t keep enhancing night-vision on its camera-phones for the unwritten purpose of boudoir photography.
Pam & Tommy
Airdate: Wednesday, February 2
Cast: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling, Andrew Dice Clay, Pepi Sonuga, Spenser Granese, Mozhan Marnò
Creator: Robert Siegel, from the Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis
And we’re very selective about it. For some reason — I’m being coy here, since there’s no ambiguity as to the reason — a Paris Hilton will spend decades answering the same vaguely impertinent questions, while it’s barely a blip on Colin Farrell’s Wikipedia page.
The clash between prurient mirth and more socially empathetic discomfort is at the heart of Hulu’s new limited series Pam & Tommy. As best I can describe it, Pam & Tommy is three fun-filled episodes — presumptively “fun-filled” — packed with silly creative gambits and early Internet nostalgia, followed by five episodes designed to make you feel bad for liking the first three.
It produces a weird friction in which some viewers are going to love those first three episodes and then complain about the reduced pizzazz in the next five. And other viewers are going to get so turned off by how bro-y the first three episodes, all directed by Craig Gillespie, are that they won’t have the patience to get to the last five, all directed by women. It’s a somewhat similar tactic to the one Hannah Fidell used in her FX adaptation of A Teacher — a few episodes of “Isn’t teacher-student sex kinda hot?” followed by “It’s gross and you should feel bad about yourself” for the rest of the season — and Fidell’s presence among the later Pam & Tommy directors (along with Lake Bell and Gwyneth Horder-Payton) is a big part of why I’ve convinced myself that the series’ two discordant tones were intentional rather than a mid-run course correction.
Pam & Tommy, created by Robert D. Siegel (The Wrestler), begins with its focus on Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), an amateur theologian turned accidental porn star turned carpenter. Rand is in the middle of a gig constructing the perfect sex den for debauched Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan). It would be a fun job — sex swings, expansive waterbeds, retractable mirrors — except that Tommy keeps changing his mind and refusing to pay up-front charges.
Frustration and an abrupt firing inspire Rand to burgle Tommy’s safe, which holds guns, jewelry and a tape featuring Lee and new bride Pamela Anderson (Lily James) having sex. With the help of porn impresario Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman), Rand hatches a plan to parlay the tape into wealth, which his study of spirituality leads him to misbelieve counts as karma.
What follows is an exploration of Pamela and Tommy’s tumultuous relationship, nascent Internet privacy laws and some key building blocks for a societal shift in which fans came to believe that their ownership of stars extended beyond their public-facing personae.
With Gillespie at the helm, the first three Pam & Tommy episodes are aggressive to the point at which I’m still not sure which things are intended as parody. It’s one ’90s-friendly musical montage after another and there are no fewer than a half-dozen extended tracking shots into clubs, mansions or film sets meant to mimic the legendary shot from Goodfellas. It’s a string of semi-obnoxious affectations, generally in the service of making Rand into at least a semi-wronged and semi-justifiable figure. And that’s before you get into moments like the sure-to-be-notorious sequence in which Lee converses with his legendary penis, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, with a glee that will seem subversive to anybody who hasn’t seen Big Mouth, a show that embraces talking penises like Garfield embraces lasagna.
“But wait,” you might correctly say, “Big Mouth is a cartoon.” To which I’d reply that the fabulating phallus in Pam & Tommy is every bit as real, which is part of the point. One of the attractions of sex tapes is that even if you’ve seen the celebrities nude in movies, this version feels more “exposed.” Gillespie reimposes artificiality onto the sex tape’s alleged reality. Tommy Lee’s penis plays a major role in the early episodes, but that penis has so little connection to Sebastian Stan that it might as well get separate billing, and when Lily James disrobes as Pamela Anderson, she’s encased in enough latex that it has all of the eroticism of watching Cats — which is to say “As much as you choose to want to admit that you feel, but don’t pretend that what you’re seeing is anything other than exactly what a team of craftsmen wants you to see.”
After three episodes, I was exhausted with Pam & Tommy, but then the story begins to shift. If Rand is the protagonist of the first episode and a constructed, fairy-tale version of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee are the protagonists of the next two, around the fourth episode Siegel, D.V. DeVincentis and the rest of the writing and directing team try to find actual humanity in their characters.
With Anderson, it works well, in part because once you get past the initial project of trying to spot Lily James within the “Pamela Anderson” makeup, James is giving a wonderful performance, making Pamela less of a caricature with each episode. Just as Bell and subsequent directors strip away Gillespie’s visual affectations, James does the same with Pamela, modifying her helium-voiced coo and her overtly sexual posture to reveal the young woman from Ladysmith, British Columbia, whom Hugh Hefner and a red bathing suit turned into a sensation. James finds Pamela’s vulnerability and native intelligence sufficiently that even if you’ve suffered through Barb Wire, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for that 1996 film not to flop.
As committed as he is to Tommy’s strung-out intensity and himbo magnetism, Stan isn’t able to do anything comparable with his character, but I think that an engaged-but-superficial performance is exactly what the show requires. The sex tape reduced Pamela to an object and elevated Tommy to an icon and given where their marriage went after the events depicted here — as in “abuse” and “acrimonious divorce” — it’s easy to understand why sympathizing with Tommy Lee might not have been on anybody’s agenda.
It’s hard enough to sympathize with Rand, whom Rogen makes into an amiably pathetic dreamer — not an innocent by any means, but far from the worst figure in a story that features a menacing Andrew Dice Clay as a threatening money lender named Butchie, Don Harvey as notorious fixer Anthony Pellicano and Maxwell Caulfield as Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. Offerman provides his own layer of sleaze as Uncle Miltie, while Taylor Schilling is effectively appealing as Rand’s porn star ex-wife, a character written almost exclusively so that she can articulate the series’ themes in the closing episodes.
Even if Pam & Tommy says all of the right things by the end, I don’t think you’re ever supposed to be fully comfortable with it. Whether you’re laughing at things you suspect you shouldn’t be laughing at in the first few episodes, or possibly missing the comedic flourishes because later episodes have the temerity to take these otherwise cartoonish people seriously, the show never settles into being just one thing.
And you know what? I’m not sure you should feel too comfortable with a Pamela Anderson image reclamation project from which Pamela Anderson doesn’t stand to benefit in any tangible way. We’ve made a mess of celebrity in this country. Pam & Tommy, if nothing else, captures that.
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