Pam and Tommy review: Questionable sex tape drama is a turn-off
The controversial miniseries undermines its own existence.
While Pam and Tommy has been generating plenty of buzz since an image of its two main stars went viral last May, there's an indisputable shadow looming over this strange-but-true factual drama: the lack of involvement from Pamela Anderson. The creative team behind the project firmly claims to be in her corner, but going ahead with a retelling of this traumatic story without her express permission leaves the whole endeavour feeling hollow.
This problem becomes apparent from the very opening scene, which recreates an uncomfortable guest appearance Anderson made on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the immediate aftermath of her sex tape theft. Curious, I tracked down the real interview online and winced as I watched the talk show host struggle to contain his laughter as she sombrely tells him: "This is devastating to us." The profound heartbreak this incident has caused burns through the fuzzy VHS recording.
After seeing that, it's hard to go back to Pam and Tommy without feeling a shred of the same complicity as those who bought that infamous tape roughly 25 years ago. It struck me that while this series treats the former Baywatch star more compassionately than the world did at the time, it is not compelling nor creative enough to justify drudging up this ugly saga for yet more people to gawp at – no matter what the filmmaker's intentions were.
Based on a lengthy account published by Rolling Stone in 2014, this eight-part miniseries chronicles how intimate footage of television star Pamela Anderson and rock musician Tommy Lee spread like a virus across the United States. Lily James (The Pursuit of Love) and Sebastian Stan (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) have undergone physical transformations to portray the then-married couple, with comedy stars Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman adding to the Pam and Tommy cast as the individuals who exploited them.
Again, there's a level of unease with seeing Rogen deploy his usual everyman shtick in a role with such questionable morality, emphasising that the admittedly likeable star – who also serves as executive producer – has a somewhat limited range. Viewers drawn in by the show's aforementioned viral marketing might be surprised at the lengths to which Rand Gauthier is explored, with the disgruntled electrician turned burglar even getting a romantic subplot that feels utterly superfluous.
The eponymous Pam and Tommy are placed front and centre for a dull flashback episode depicting the genesis of their whirlwind romance, which is nowhere near as original as it thinks it is. In this particular chapter, it's glaringly noticeable how sex, nudity and innuendo are used as a crutch to distract viewers from the occasionally clunky script and generally uninspired direction from Craig Gillespie.
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Even the much-touted "talking penis" scene – inspired by an excerpt from Lee's autobiography – ends up a total bust (no pun intended), with the tedious skit playing like a scrapped idea from one of those godawful straight-to-video American Pie sequels. That Gillespie went along with this makes you wonder just how instrumental producer and star Margot Robbie must have been to the success of his previous directing effort, I, Tonya.
Some of the blame also falls on Stan, whose portrayal of Lee is uneven at best. He has a scattering of strong moments, but all too often it feels like we're watching a Saturday Night Live send-up, rather than a sincere attempt at capturing the eccentric heavy metal drummer. Despite being subjected to a more drastic makeover, James delivers a far more grounded performance, encompassing a number of subtle moments that easily pull at the heartstrings.
In this sense, the show succeeds in its purported goal of earning sympathy for Anderson, but in doing so undermines its existence even further as a story told without her approval. Perhaps the show could help change attitudes among those still seeking out intimate leaked images, but so far it seems too busy revelling in its own debauchery to say anything especially powerful.
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Pam and Tommy premieres on Hulu in the US and on Disney Plus in the UK on Wednesday 2nd February 2022. You can sign up to Disney+ for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.
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