It is around the time that Tommy Lee’s penis is anthropomorphized and begins talking to him, gesticulating with all the verve that the shaft of a penis can muster, that Hulu’s new limited series Pam & Tommy elevates to high art.

The trippy, dare I say transcendent, moment comes in the second episode of the series, which launched Wednesday. After some intense flirting, Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, the sex-rebel couple behind the brightest-burning romantic fairy tale of the ’90s, are finally in the bedroom together. They slowly undress for each other. When Pam is naked and all that’s left is for Tommy to drop trou, he teases, “Would you like to meet him?” She’s thrilled: “Yes, I would.”

The camera pans down, revealing a gasp-inducing member—one that probably requires no further description, thanks to the tape that is at the center of Pam & Tommy’s narrative. It is, of course, a prosthetic worn by actor Sebastian Stan, of prodigious size to rival the breastplate actress Lily James wears to approximate Pam’s signature bust. (Both performers are otherwise more than generous with their own nudity.)

After Pam and Tommy spend their first night together, he’s smitten. The next morning, he and his talking penis, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, have a heart-to-heart. Think of it as a phallic conscience, or Tommy’s own, hornier Jiminy Cricket. At this point in Tommy Lee’s life, he is recently divorced from actress Heather Locklear, and Conscience Cock doesn’t want Tommy to go all-in on his infatuation with Pam while they’re still aboard their “pussy train.” “What about Jenny McCarthy?” the penis pleads. “You’re passing on Denise fucking Richards?”

But Tommy will not be swayed by his dick’s grand ovations. He’s so devoted that he wants to wait until his and Pam’s potential wedding night to have sex. (The evening prior was all naked cuddling.)

Cut to, seconds later, a marriage proposal, made dramatically at a raucous night club. “Next to you, Carmen Electra is a hack!” he bellows. “You make Jenna Jameson look like a four!” He gets down on one knee. She says yes. They wed on a beach after knowing each other for just four days. Lots of sex ensues, including a honeymoon captured on a camcorder. And then, well, history.

I bring up this sequence because it is obviously insane. But I also bring it up because it exemplifies the canny, winking, and frankly brilliant approach Pam & Tommy takes to telling this story.

It is an astounding, and yet perfect, sign of how the medium has so rapidly evolved that a series centered around Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee’s infamous 1995 sex tape is considered prestige television. Yet that is precisely what this is—and it was only a matter of time before we got here.

There are creative elements that signal this is prestige TV, even before you reckon with the subject matter and the subjects themselves: two celebrities whose notoriety and image—as judged by society—mean they’ve hardly been taken seriously over the years, let alone in a manner that would predict they’d be mentioned in the same breath as what we consider “prestige.”

The first three episodes of Pam & Tommy were directed by Craig Gillespie, who has helmed award-nominated fare like I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl. Two of Hollywood’s most in-demand rising stars assume the lead roles: Lily James (Cinderella, Baby Driver, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and Sebastian Stan (the Marvel Universe’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier, I, Tonya). It is a streaming service’s limited series based on real-world events that dissects and recontextualizes media, celebrity, and the cultural mores of a certain time period. All the trappings are there of a Ryan Murphy American Crime Story series, for example, that would rake in Emmy nominations and critical adulation.

It’s a series that makes you think in ways that might surprise you about bias, shame, and misogyny in terms of how a major news story unfurled 25 years ago—and what ways we might have all been complicit in the unsavory underbelly of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s also a true crime story. Many people, when they think about the Pam and Tommy sex tape and how it grew into a cultural punchline, forget that this was a private item that was locked up in a safe. It was stolen from them in a burglary and released without their consent—and, actually, much to their horror.

This is also an eye-opening chronicle of the early days of the internet as it hit the mainstream; every advancement, growth in usage, and discovered possibility of what the internet could be coincides with the amplified availability and ensuing impact of the unauthorized sex tape.

This is all to say that, across its eight episodes, Pam & Tommy is far more than a sniveling, pervy time machine revisiting a salacious sex scandal that’s been mocked for decades. But the genius is that it is also that: sniveling, pervy, and canny about the scandal and the mockery that piqued all of our attention in the first place.

‘Pam & Tommy’ is far more than a sniveling, pervy time machine revisiting a salacious sex scandal that’s been mocked for decades. But the genius is that it is also that: sniveling, pervy, and canny about the scandal and the mockery that piqued all of our attention in the first place.

Yes, there is a talking penis. The physical transformations of James and Stan into their celebrity counterparts sparked instant applause and fawning when teaser images were first released. The actual performances are even more impressive, with James altering her voice to capture Anderson’s raspy breathiness, which she both wields as a sultry weapon of sensuality and uses to telegraph a wounded vulnerability and girl-next-door sincerity.

The camera movement around them is vigorous and stylized, often using music video tricks to center the duo in the frame in a way that evokes a cheeky laugh—like you’re meant to know you’re watching cartoonish approximations of the people themselves. That’s the impulse, after all; their brand and their images were beamed at us with that kind of heightened cartooniness all those years ago.

Seth Rogen, who developed the series with his creative partner Evan Goldberg, plays Rand Gauthier, the aggrieved construction worker who was fired and stiffed by Tommy Lee during a bedroom renovation project. With his curly mullet, ill-fitting jeans, and billowing button-up shirts, he looks ridiculous. (Or, to be honest, like a Gen Z-er you might walk past on the streets of Bushwick.)

You’re meant to laugh at him. You’re meant to chuckle at his buffoonish plan—to stage a heist at Tommy Lee’s house to steal back what the rocker owed him—and then his haplessness when it spirals out of control. In the safe that he steals, he finds the infamous sex tape, peddles it to seedy porn producers, discovers a way to get rich quick by selling it on the internet, and then finds himself as the target of both violent mobsters who loaned him money and Tommy Lee on a warpath.

That giggling wink at the nostalgic lunacy of mid-’90s culture and the genre of buffoonish crime capers helps nail the exact right tone for Pam & Tommy. It settles you into the same silliness that you might have processed the sex tape scandal with in the first place, so that you might be startled, or at least enlightened, by the ways in which its impact is much more serious than that.

James’ strongest work is in the episodes when Pam is desperate to stop the tape from gaining more attention, pitching her frustration that no one seems to understand how different it is for her than for Tommy. She would be (and was) slut-shamed. He would be lionized, the guy with the big dick who has great sex with the babe from Baywatch. She would never be taken seriously as an actress again. He would still be the cool rocker. For her, this was a violation. For him, this was a nuisance.

There’s a lot going on here. Sex! Crime! The internet! The price of fame! Sexism! A talking penis! But this is Pam and Tommy we’re talking about, and this is the mid-’90s we’re exploring. Being a lot is the point. Hell, being too much is the point. The trashy, outrageous, audacious, implausibly poignant point.



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