Among the over-the-top scenes in the Hulu limited series “Pam & Tommy”:
- Pamela Anderson (Lily James) has learned a tape of her having sex with her husband Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) is circling in the underground. As Pam starts walking on the “Baywatch” lot, she hears the sounds of the tape, and happens upon a dozen crew members gawking at the videotape in a trailer. How convenient for these pervs to leave the door open and crank up the sound, and then act surprised when Pam walks in.
An eight-part series on Hulu premiering with three episodes Wednesday. Future episodes premiere on subsequent Wednesdays.
- After a disastrous premiere screening and party for Pamela’s movie “Barb Wire,” Tommy instructs the limo driver to take them to a theater showing the film to paying customers. They slip into the sparsely attended screening and hear people laughing at the awfulness of the movie. Tommy: You JUST left a party that felt like a wake, with one patron saying, “That’s the second-best movie she’s been in this year.” And yet you drag your wife to a public screening? Read the room, man!
- It’s the mid-1990s, and Motley Crue is performing in the parking lot of Tower Records to promote the band’s album “Generation Swine.” The smallish crowd loves them — but then Tommy spots a group of flannel-wearing grunge fans who sneer at the Crue and their big hair and their big music, and Tommy realizes their moment has passed. Subtle!
I know, I know: A dramatic limited series about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and the OG of celebrity sex tapes is hardly Jane Austen material, and camp probably should be the order of the day. There is no denying certain guilty-pleasure elements of “Pam & Tommy,” and I appreciated the attention to period-piece detail, from the hair and fashion to the cars and music. But spending eight episodes with Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee is what I would imagine it would have been like to spend a lot of time with those two in real life at the time: fascinating at first in a human car wreck kind of way, equal parts hilarious and sad — but ultimately exhausting.
Lily James does a fine job of capturing Anderson’s breathy, Marilyn Monroe-esque delivery and succeeds in expanding her character beyond the Playboy centerfold stereotypes, but Sebastian Stan’s performance is about as subtle as the Spinal Tap amplifier that goes to “11.” You won’t see that much ham on the table at a Vegas buffet. Stan’s Tommy Lee is a dim-bulb, narcissistic man-child who is rude and verbally abusive to nearly everyone with whom he has contact. Even when he’s effusively expressing his never-ending love for Pamela in the midst of a marriage that lasted all of three years, he sounds like a middle-schooler with a first crush.
“Pam & Tommy” also wobbles from tonal inconsistency. Some episodes play like a B-movie take on “Boogie Nights,” while others seem to be aiming for the docudrama feel of “I, Tonya.” (In fact, the first three episodes of this series were helmed by “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie.) Alas, the scripts and performances don’t match the A-list work on those two films. (I kid you not, there’s a scene in which Tommy talks to his legendary penis — and the penis talks back.)
Working from the framework of true events, the series kicks off with Seth Rogen’s Rand Gautier, a carpenter for hire who is working on renovations to the Lees’ garish mansion, constantly at odds with Tommy and eventually fired. When Tommy refuses to pay Rand for the work already done and points a shotgun at Rand when Rand tries to retrieve his tools, Rand plots his revenge: He’s going to steal that enormous safe in the garage studio on the property.
When Rand discovers a certain honeymoon videotape among the treasures, it ignites a series of bizarre (and yet true to real life) circumstances. Rand gets tangled up with a creepy, drug-addled porn producer named Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman) and a strip-mall crime boss called Butchie (Andrew Dice Clay), as various schemers try to profit off the tape. We get lots of jokes about this thing called the internet and the advent of online porn and the crazy notion that people can watch this ill-gotten tape on their computers, and cameos by actors in unfortunate makeup playing the likes of Hugh Hefner, Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione and Jay Leno.
“Pam & Tommy” keeps reminding us the couple was the victim of multiple crimes: first, the burglary of their possessions, and then the widespread distribution of that tape by a series of exploitative hustlers and criminals. Thanks to James’ empathetic performance, we feel for Pamela, who has to keep reminding people — mostly men — that there’s a huge difference between making the decision to pose nude for a magazine and being exposed in a private honeymoon tape that was never intended for public consumption.
There’s almost certainly a solid, two-hour movie contained within these eight episodes. We just spend too much time on meandering subplots, and too much time enduring Tommy Lee’s increasingly insufferable antics.