The Three-Episode Pam & Tommy Premiere Balances Sensitivity And Sleaze

Remember the '90s? If not, you're about to. "Pam & Tommy" debuted on Hulu today with a three-episode premiere that featured a deep dive on the stolen honeymoon tape that led to the world's first major internet sex scandal. With "I, Tonya" director Craig Gillespie behind the camera, it's no surprise that the show presents a more fully rounded portrait of the people at the center of the scandal than typical tabloid fare.

Yet these episodes don't hold back, either, especially when portraying the bad behavior of Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. These first three episodes don't focus on Pamela Anderson (Lily James) as much as trailers promised the full series will, but they're still an excellent introduction to James' fully immersed performance as the misunderstood model and actress.

A Vendetta Is Born

The show's first episode, "Drilling and Pounding," finds an unorthodox entry point to the story of Pam and Tommy. It's Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), the contractor who finally snaps after enduring months of poor treatment from Tommy. The series takes a big gamble by placing us squarely in Rand's corner from the jump, but since he's the third key player in the true story who often goes unmentioned, it makes sense to introduce him early on.

Rogen developed "Pam & Tommy" alongside Evan Goldberg, using a Rolling Stone article that heavily features Rand as a foundation for the story. The team clearly has empathy for the guy, but he's also the type of person who seems to be born with a chip on his shoulder. He fumes when Tommy appears in a Speedo and demands the team entertain his latest design idea. When their work relationship disintegrates entirely, Rand starts sitting in a van outside their house, recording their comings and goings.

Make no mistake: Tommy also comes off terribly here. In the Rolling Stone article, interior designer Guerin Swing says the celebrity couple "spent money like they hated it." That's the impression we get from Tommy early on. He pitches ideas for waterbeds and 360-degree views of the shower, imagining a love nest that's expensive, skeezy, and difficult to construct. He also doesn't get that Rand has bills, and when the contractor finally asks him to pay up, the rock star fires him and his team, unpaid. Pamela, meanwhile, only shows up briefly, as the pantsless bombshell Rand tries not to stare at when he stumbles upon her in the kitchen.

The Heist

"Drilling and Pounding" spends an inordinate amount of time going into the details of Tommy and Rand's feud, but it's all fuel for the fire that leads Rand to steal the couple's safe – and the sex tape inside. When Rand goes back to collect his tools, paranoid Tommy holds him at gunpoint. Rand is so scared, he wets his pants; we see in flashback that this has happened once before, when his jerk dad locked him in his room as a kid so he could entertain several lady friends. Rand believes in karma – "The righteous, they get rewarded. The wicked, they get punished," he tells his coworker. Except, after that humiliation, he wants to be karma himself.

Rand sneaks onto the Lee property in the middle of the night, initially planning to wear furs that will make him look like Tommy's big sheepdog in security footage. He sees Pamela and Tommy asleep, naked, and stands at the foot of their bed just because he can. Finally, he takes the safe. In the final moments of the "Pam & Tommy" premiere, we see a montage of Rand, self-satisfied and up to his neck in weed, snacks, and paid bills. He doesn't notice a small hi8 tape for days or even weeks, but when he does, he takes it to a guy called Miltie (Nick Offerman). When the credits roll on the first episode of "Pam & Tommy," we've just been formally introduced to Pamela Anderson on the explicit videotape that would soon take over her life.

A Wonderfully Off-Putting Meet-Cute

Episode one of "Pam & Tommy" almost feels like a detour, a decent opening act for episode two's main attraction. "I Love You, Tommy" takes us through the dizzying, ridiculous courtship that led to Pam and Tommy's marriage – and the video that came from it. The episode also gives us a better look at the show's two uber-committed leads, who elevate the series from what could have been a trashy retelling into something closer to a genuine love story.

The episode opens with Pamela, and title cards let us know she'll be engaged to Tommy in two months' time. Right now, though, she's at a club with friends, swearing off bad boys entirely. She doesn't realize Tommy is just one VIP section over from hers, fiercely making out with his date.

The impetus for their initial introduction is as unbelievable as the couple themselves; when Pamela buys a round for everyone in the bar, Tommy seems to think she sent him one special. He sidles into the womens' booth, and, I kid you not, licks Pamela's face. There's immediate heat between the two, so this isn't the absolute weirdest time for one person to lick another's face, but it's still the series' first hint at just how much of an unexpected kick this relationship will have. Pamela, thinking quickly, turns it into a game where each person licks the face of the person next to them. Sure!

This scene is a great barometer for "Pam & Tommy" as a whole. The series never questions Pamela's intelligence, but instead portrays her as a savvy, sweet woman with a romantic streak and an appearance that makes her easy to underestimate. The show creates a version of the duo's love that's silly and dramatic but rooted in real, palpable chemistry that grows into deep care. In the beginning, though, they're just two wild things determined to show each other they're up for anything. "I'm Greek," Tommy says, after shattering a glass on the floor. "I'm Pam," Pamela answers in deadpan. Now that's a meet-cute.

The 4-Day Affair

The rest of the episode enthusiastically recreates the couple's whirlwind 1995 courtship. Tommy is both annoying and magnetic, leaving Pam immature voicemails one minute and surprising her in Cancun the next. The man is on a singular mission to bag Pam. As played by Stan, he's an impulsive dirtbag who's a little bit irresistible despite wearing all his worst traits loud and proud. He meets her at dinner, but the pair get kicked out because he refuses to follow the restaurant dress code. He proposes to her after four days – with a ring he took off someone else.

He's also more than a little bit d**k obsessed. He introduces his member to Pamela – in a surprisingly chaste scene, because she doesn't want to hook up before marriage – with all the seriousness of introducing a partner to one's parents. Later, on their honeymoon, he hangs a do not disturb sign on it. None of this compares, though, to the scene in which Tommy has a full-blown conversation with his junk.

FACT CHECK: What's With The Talking Penis?

That's right. In one of the show's most off-putting scenes, Tommy engages in conversation with his penis, which is voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. Unfortunately, his member talks back, wriggling in all directions as it helps him unpack his feelings for Pamela. Initially, I was put off by this scene, as its sensationalism seems to undercut the project's apparent goal of humanizing these two oft-objectified celebrities. I did, however, find out that the scene is pulled from Lee's own memoir, "Tommyland," which makes it a little easier to stomach. Series writer Robert Seigel told Variety, "As much as I'd like to take credit for that, I was simply adapting a chapter from [Lee's] memoir. I think it might be a first [for television]."

It certainly looks like a first. It's honestly hard to pay attention to what Tommy's penis is saying as it moves to and fro, rasping out advice in the voice of Derek from "The Good Place". The scene goes on for a long time – nearly two minutes – and by the time it ends, Tommy is certain Pamela is the love of his life. The two get married on a beach in Cancun in a scene that's much cuter than this one.

The Newlyweds Win Us Over

After a montage of memorable and surprisingly cinematic honeymoon sex – so many drinks spilling in slow motion – the couple find themselves headed back to their real lives. They realize they've never even been to each others' houses, and don't even know where they're going to live. There's a scene on the plane here that I love, another moment that gets to the heart of "Pam & Tommy." The show may be salacious at times, but it's never mean in its approach to the pair's unorthodox love story.

When Pamela and Tommy try to find common ground, something to grab onto that proves this wasn't a huge mistake, they struggle for a minute. He doesn't like romance movies and she doesn't like horror movies. They look panicked, as if this is a bad omen, but then Pam tells Tommy that French fries are her favorite food. He laughs in relief. "I f**kin' love French fries," he tells her, and he's so heartfelt, it's as if he's saying his vows all over again.

There's one more thing that the couple has in common; they're both eager to start a family. Pam moves into Tommy's house and the pair settle into newlywed life, talking immediately about the idea of getting pregnant. The episode ends having properly convinced us that these two kooky kids really have something special. They watch "The King and I" in bed, and giddily sing "Getting To Know You" along with Julie Andrews. This is Tommy without anyone to impress; his swagger and defensiveness are both switched off, and he's just having fun with his girl. Pamela is already plenty loveable, but despite what the song says, we won't really get to know her until the show's third episode.

Getting To Know Pam

Now that we're up to speed on all the story's major players, "Pam & Tommy" is finally ready to dig into the tape at its center. First, though, the series has to clue us in as to just how big of a deal Pamela Anderson was when the scandal happened. This is the first episode that shows us who Pamela is separate from Tommy, and the show writes her as a level-headed woman who sees the best in people, even if they all too often see her as a body without a brain.

Much of the episode involves a monologue Pam is excited to perform on "Baywatch," only to have it cut at the last moment. She's a hard worker, and it's clear that Tommy has complete faith in her. He helps her practice, then cooks her a big dinner to celebrate the day on set. His own days are a lot emptier though; in a rather on-the-nose scene, he sits alone on a couch in his mansion, watching a "Behind The Music"-esque show that explains how obsolete Motley Crue has become when faced with the advent of grunge. Tommy's confidence in her pushes Pamela to be more assertive, though, and she ultimately speaks up for herself – in a cheerful, non-confrontational way – on the "Baywatch" set.

Bodies And Souls

This episode of "Pam & Tommy" introduces us to the recurring motif of Eastern religion. After Rand and Miltie decide to try to make money off the stolen tape, Rand prays over it. The self-proclaimed theology and metaphysics fan starts off selfless enough, but by the end, he's waving a feather over the tape and saying, "May you knock those f***ers down a peg." Later, Pam and Tommy hold a similar, if more positive, ceremony over a pregnancy test, referencing the Hindu principle of samsara. They may not be on the same page, but all three characters are seeking some sense of order that's higher than themselves.

And yet, "Pam & Tommy" is all about the bodily, the inescapably earthly and instinctual. Just as the two celebrities can't stop craving each other, Rand and Miltie crave the money that will no doubt get them laid. The episode introduces us to Erica (Taylor Schilling), Rand's ex who is way more likable than he is. Erica is an adult actress, and when the pair first met, she introduced him to the porn industry. This is where Rand returns to when he discovers the hi8 tape. Miltie and Rand make a plan to get a distributor for the tape, but it soon goes awry when it becomes clear that no one will sell it without signed releases from its stars.

It's nice to know that the porn industry wasn't the wild west in the '90s and that plenty of people said no to Rand's exploitative idea. He finds a way around the moral dilemma, though; a cool new thing called the world wide web. It would be easy to say that everyone involved in this sex tape debacle should have known better, but "Pam & Tommy" presents the early days of the internet as a whole different world. In a funny bit that will follow his character throughout the series, Rand has to explain the entire internet to potential collaborators. In this instance, he ends up pitching the idea to Miltie's contact, a mob guy named Butchie (Andrew Dice Clay) who looks like bad news. Butchie bites, and by episode's end, the tape is officially on its way to the world.

The Dream Of Jane Fonda

Meanwhile, Pam and Tommy are like a couple of rich and famous deer in the headlights. Their house is so big they haven't even noticed the safe is gone yet. The episode ends with Pam at a business meeting, where she's asked to help craft her PR narrative ahead of her starring role in the upcoming movie "Barb Wire." When asked who she looks up to, Pam says Jane Fonda. She praises the "bad*ss" multi-hyphenate for managing to be a fitness guru, serious actor, sex symbol, and anti-war activist all at once. This is what Pamela wants: freedom to be anything and everything.

This episode ends with a surprisingly painful bit of dramatic irony. Pamela, still daydreaming about her Fonda-esque future, finds out she's pregnant and runs to Tommy with joyful abandon. He instantly starts crying; the two are getting what they want most. At that same moment, the website advertising the tape – the one that will ensure Pamela will only be seen one way for years to come – goes live on the internet.

"Pam & Tommy" had plenty to prove with this premiere, and viewed together, these three episodes check off all the right boxes. Stan and James, especially, have proven they can lend depth to two over-the-top and often-maligned real-life people without sacrificing any of the magnetism that made them tabloid fixtures in the first place. The show only works if it sets the record straight, rather than presenting the same shallow narrative that traumatized them – especially Pam – all those years ago. No one can speak for its subjects, but from where I'm standing, these three episodes work as both compelling television and an effective reframing of a misrepresented true story. As long as Tommy's penis stops talking, "Pam & Tommy" has us hooked.

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