The internet was a mistake! This oft-repeated refrain defines each new year anew, from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s fallout from the 2016 US Presidential Election to the rise of NFTs confusing ownership in idea for ownership in reality (and destroying the environment as a side effect). Rewinding back to 1995 and the true Wild West of the World Wide Web, the sentiment takes on new meaning.
The Disney/Hulu show Pam & Tommy largely sidelines its eponymous celebrity couple in the opening episode. Here, Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) takes centre stage as the abused handyman who steals Tommy Lee’s safe, igniting a chain of events that spirals out of his – or anyone’s – control as he seeks to cash in on the private sex tape as pornography. As Pamela Anderson’s and Tommy Lee’s separate – and convergent – stories emerge in the second and following episodes, Gauthier’s plot runs concurrently in the background, coming back to prominence in the seventh instalment. The resulting miniseries is a wild ride start to finish, starting big, bombastic, and pushing the bounds of reality before evolving into something strangely sweet, sad, and human.
Much of the series’ early publicity focused on the transformations of its central actors. Lily James is physically almost unrecognizable under truly jaw-dropping work by the hair and makeup team, but the actress’ familiar lilting version of the American accent and her physical ticks – the spin, the arms swinging just so to tell her character is bothered, but trying not to be – convey that this is James’ specific Anderson. It is a strong choice that lets the actress’ humanity carry while avoiding many imitative biopics pitfalls.
Rogen gives Gauthier a nervy energy, entirely believable in impulsive actions determined by Hollywood glitz and his new-age faith (a plot point delivered for laughs, but not without kindness). He subverts the expectation of the everyman undone by divadom and excess, signalling his own lost path and the redemptive arc he must set for himself. The supporting cast, notably Nick Offerman as the suave and sleazy Uncle Miltie/Michael Morrison and Taylor Schilling as Gauthier’s girlfriend/wife/ex Erica, are uniformly excellent, anchoring the no-guts-no-glory mentality of an emerging digital era in varying viewpoints.
Stan’s physical transformation is less chameleonic than his costar’s, but he too brings a similar blend of impersonation and originality. He radiates a manic energy as he bounces between the walls of constantly-moving frames, only stopping when Lee is forced to a reckoning. In a scene adapted with gobsmacking literalism from Lee’s memoir, the rock star faces a full-length mirror, stark naked, and has a conversation with his own penis (the member in question is a puppet manned by four operators – where on Earth were they standing – and is alarmingly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, perhaps the only living actor who can make sense and integrity of such a performance). The audacity and aplomb of this scene will likely make it the most talked-about of the entire miniseries, but Pam & Tommy somehow transcends all lewd and scandalous material.
The recreated sex tape itself is never shown in explicit detail, only more innocuous moments – the camera cuts to the tape’s viewers while graphic moments are heard. That said, the show never shies away from simulated intercourse in other situations, with James speaking at length of the excellent intimacy coordinators on set. While sometimes played with a comic edge, these sequences advance plot and characters without gratuity or titillation.
The ethics of re-excavating a stolen sex tape as the basis of a biopic are ropey at best, but Pam & Tommy manages to switch gears between farce and tragedy at precisely the right moment and to the right degree. Even when the elements are blended each lands fully – as Anderson deals with the fallout (a far more brutal one than is dealt to her husband), Gauthier and Uncle Miltie explore the harebrained scheme called the world wide web with incredulity and innocence. While Anderson’s rise to fame flashbacks hit on cue, when the narrative needs soulful reflection in the eleventh hour, the reflectiveness heightens her isolation in a world where feminism was becoming a dirty word and internet pornography was not bound by video store waivers. These are intelligent reflections bound in moments of anarchy, neither feeling out of place.
It would be too easy – and incorrect – to say Pam & Tommy is a show that does not know what it is or who it is for. On the contrary, the show is masterfully in command of its tone and genre even as it enthusiastically handbrakes its changes. The success and commitment with which each development justifies what might be a massively uneven narrative in other hands. Viewers who come in for the snark and salaciousness of the first three episodes will likely be disappointed by the circumspect ensuing five; viewers who would love the spiky, nuanced back half may not make it past the first thirty minutes.
Pam & Tommy deserves an audience beyond those who come for the celebrity rubbernecking, and one wonders if the miniseries will find it. Perhaps the new, questionably improved worldwide web gives this surreal, heartfelt show its best chance.
Pam & Tommy premieres on Hulu and Disney+ on February 2.
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie