It’s more than you would expect. It’s everything you would expect.
Lily James and Sebastian Stan so completely become Pam and Tommy that I suspect many critics will forget they are acting. If you are looking for a way to criticize their performances, she is a little taller than the real thing and he is a little shorter. And of course, they are hemmed in by the people they are playing. But there is not a single “wink,” letting the audience in on the joke. They just are.
It takes a while to get there (the 8 episodes are 336 minutes in total), but the theme is that Pam Anderson was victimized by the distribution of the tape, much more so than Tommy Lee. Whatever darkness is in her is perhaps referenced, but not really shown on the series. She refers to herself as a good girl repeatedly. It is indicated that she has mostly had long relationships with “bad boys” who control her. She withholds sex for a time.
And so does the show.
It is one of the masterful strokes in the direction of the series that Craig Gillespie and showrunner Robert Siegel tease a lot in Episode One, showing nothing much. And when they are ready to let loose in the key episode, #2, all bets are off. There are small moments of nudity throughout the episodes, but for most of the journey, that is not a big part of the show. It is about people… who happen to be sex gods… but that is not what the series is about.
Really, the central character of the show is Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier. If that name seems familiar, he is the son of Dick Gautier (apparently he removed the “h” for showbiz), best known for originating the role of Conrad Birdie on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie, and later playing Hymie, the robot in Get Smart or various handsome guys in pretty much every TV series from the mid-60 until the late 1980s.
But I digress…
Rand is a guy who seems untethered from any family and who is deeply in search of peace and a way to like himself. Rogen manages to play him without any Seth Rogenisms. I read someone dismiss this as a trick, but I am a bit offended by that. He really stays within the role. Thing is, like Pam & Tommy, the character is a bit shallow and thus, the performance looks easy. I don’t think it was.
The series is really a 3-hander. Rand and Tommy and Pam. Tommy is mostly a self-satisfied jerk. He becomes self-aware at times, briefly. He’s a Lost Boy, never likely to really grow up. Pam is the one we see grow up through this 2-3 year long journey. But she also gets her backstory back to the moment of being discovered. Rand starts lost and is constantly fighting to prove that he is a man… and then that he is not too much of a testosterone jerk… and then that he is a man.
If these performances are overlooked come Emmy nominations, that will be a mistake. Not because of the nudity or wildness… but because these are real “lost in the character” turns. Not gimmick performances. Not imitations. James and Stan really melt into people with whom we are really familiar.
The supporting cast in the show is exceptional, but like the series itself, they are no highly showy characters. Milton Ingley aka Uncle Miltie is played by the great Nick Offerman. He’s the porn director/producer who Rand knows and will help him get the tape out there. Taylor Schilling is Erica Gauthier, Rand’s on-again, off-again wife. (You can easily find footage of her and Rand doing porn together on the web, though I won’t be linking that here.) Andrew Dice Clay is the mob guy, Louis “Butchie” Peraino, who was the original financier of Deep Throat and who used that money to fund The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Other famous faces show up and some actors you will recognize. But again… this is really about the central trio.
Watch for a number of movie references. Craig Gillespie (episodes 1-3) homages Boogie Nights (which was homging Goodfellas) a couple of times. I love that they brought in A Teacher director Hannah Fidell to handle the episode when we flashback to Pam’s entry into the industry.
I could have named this tune in maybe 6 shows instead of 8. Episodes shorten out to under 40 minutes as you get further into the series. Did I need as many of the side stories and as much depth as they are given? Not all of them.
But I am so glad I watched the show. And then watched it again for good measure. Every major character has a clear purpose and journey. You may disagree with the motives people act on, but you won’t sit there going, “What kind of idiot would do that?”
Is the “Poor Pam” take in the last 3rd of the series a bit much? Yeah. But maybe the point has to be made repeatedly to take hold with people.
And what can I say about Episode 2? This is the most fun, most wild, most shocking episode of the series. The make-up work on totally naked actors - except for some added parts - should probably get a Special Emmy. However they did whatever they did to Lily James has a result that didn’t have a seam that I could see. What they brought to Sebastian Stan’s performance really spoke to me. ‘Nuff said.
Between this on Hulu and We Need To Talk About Cosby on Showtime and Inventing Anna on Netflix, it’s going to be a really good February on the tubeless tube with a lot of real people being looked at in unexpected ways.