2 out of 5
Created by: Robert Siegel
While you could make the argument that any given person’s life, or a slice of it, could be dramatized to such an extent to make for a watchable movie or TV, there are surely people who, by the standards of the average yahoos with whom we interact daily – friends, coworkers, family – are “larger than life.” That many of these personalities seem to already be relatively active in some form of popular entertainment may be a chicken and egg debate, but there’s also surely the question of how much our perception of such people is changed simply by dint of how they’re presented to us.
From this stew of “stars – they’re just like us!” fascination come certain types that are all too easily described by their extremes. They are cartoon characters – they are unreal. But that’s the catch, because they are real, and they are just like us in a key way: they’re human.
Creator Robert Siegel’s Pam & Tommy wants to capture a key moment in two larger-than-life types – Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee: when their stolen sex tape became the sex tape that it was okay for everyone to talk about, and to joke about. When Siegel and his writers and directors choose to remember that this duo are, as mentioned, humans, the series can be quite strong, reminding us of the circus of celebrity and posing questions about the nature of privacy and gender roles that, perhaps especially for someone – me – who was a teen at the time that the video was “released,” and thus was part of the cultural wave caught up in its effects, hit home as a reminder of how harmful our ignorances can be, whether direct or indirect. But when Siegel et al. choose instead to go with a presentation that favors a different term I used – a cartoonish one – all of those hard-hitting moments absolutely eat themselves, spreading out its story to play up the comedy and lose all sight of the reality. This unfortunately requires Lily James (Anderson) and Sebastian Stan (Lee) to play into that, overdoing their personas to the point where they’re too clearly doing impressions, and making it even harder to dig back to some of the important concepts explored here.
Because those concepts are heavy: the explosion of internet-available porn and its effect on the public’s perceptions of sex, and primarily of women; the tipped scales that mean that once a woman has posed for Playboy, she’s permanently considered a sex object; the concept of consent – that being a party girl does not mean that you are happy with your private sex life being played out for all; that a personal item was stolen and then legally distributed…
It goes on and on, and this does produce some strong moments, where James and Stan can navigate to the more relatable stew of confusion and frustration and push-and-pull morality behind their personas. But there’s an equation problem here, which is that Anderson’s story is likely the more compelling one, rendering Tommy as a one-note goomba who’s pissed about his flailing career, and so filling that gap is a lot of bravado and – I shit you not – a scene where Stan talks to his penis, which is prosthetically animated to talk back to him. Had this oddity evolved into something that played more with the male ego, it could work, even leaning into the show’s tendency toward humor, but it’s instead a one note gag that reeks of the Seth Rogen / Evan Goldberg production which hangs over this whole thing – a surface level bro approach to the subject matter.
Starting out with Pam and Lee’s alcohol- and party-filled first meeting and whirlwind marriage, Pam & Tommy pitches the duo as airheaded, obnoxious, celebrity animals; this isn’t structurally wrong, as it gives the later material a contrast, but we spend an awful long time with that tone, enough so that the 80s sex comedy vibes it gives off end up hanging over the rest of the show. Padded out further by going into the details of how the tape was procured and distributed is not uninteresting, or unimportant to the story, but again: it’s played for laughs. Seth Rogen is the pissed-off fired and unpaid carpenter, Rand, who takes revenge on his former employee – Lee – by stealing a safe which ends up containing the tape; the show positions him as a POV character, and is thus moderately sympathetic to him, mistaking putting him through the ringer of the fallout of his actions as commentary on those actions, when it rather treats him like an underdog. Late in the series, a character has to explain some morals to us; a better show would’ve been massaging those in the whole while.
I get the temptation that resulted in making this more comedy than drama. But there was certainly a smarter way to approach that tone that wouldn’t have essentially subjected its focuses to the same shallow scrutiny as the first go-round.