Pam & Tommy First Reviews: Lily James' Portrayal of Pamela Anderson Is an 'Outright Triumph,' Critics Say

The series struggles to balance the raunchy comedy and impactful drama. But the stars' transformations and, in particular, Lily James' top-notch performance will keep audiences talking.

by | January 26, 2022 | Comments

Pam & Tommy follows the notorious exploits of Baywatch bombshell Pamela Anderson (Lily James), Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), their over-the-top public-facing marriage, and the stolen sex tape that changed everything. Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman co-star as Rand Gauthier, the contractor who burgles Lee’s home after the rock-star refuses to pay him for services rendered, and Uncle Miltie, the pornographer who assists Rand in turing the tape into heaps of cash and, as Rand sees it, karmic retribution. Unbeknownst to him, this decision would have ripple effects that would change society’s connection with media, celebrity, and pop culture for good.

A hefty amount of buzz accompanies the premiere of the eight-episode limited series, which debuts its first three episodes on Wednesday on Hulu and was inspired by Amanda Chicago Lewis’ 2014 Rolling Stone article. Directed entirely by Craig Gillespie (Cruella, I, Tonya), the program is Fresh with an 83% score on the Tomatometer at the time of publication.

Here’s what critics are saying about Pam & Tommy:

How Are Lily James’ and Sebastian Stan’s Performances?

(Photo by Hulu)

James’ Pam is an outright triumph, both of acting and of special-effects makeup. To the latter point first, even viewers (like this one) not particularly concerned with visual realness will be genuinely stunned by the degree to which James has been made to resemble the Pam of the 1990s. Meticulousness of this sort can sometimes stand in for insight about a character, but here, it allows James leeway to push into aspects of Anderson we might not expect. The makeup department, in so precisely crafting an image, gives James the room to subvert it. – Daniel D’Addario, Variety

Lily James (“Cinderella,” “Baby Driver”) gives the performance to take from this series. Made to look remarkably like Anderson, James is full of feeling and grows over the course of eight episodes. She goes from a hopeful and people-pleasing party girl to a serious woman with a rueful understanding of her place in a male-dominated entertainment industry. – Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

As committed as he is to Tommy’s strung-out intensity and himbo magnetism, Stan isn’t able to do anything comparable with his character, but I think that an engaged-but-superficial performance is exactly what the show requires. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

I should mention Stan and James’ superb performances. They transform themselves into their characters. He’s all tattoos, earrings, nipple piercing, goatee, eye-liner and constant shirtlessness. I no longer saw the protagonist of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but a rock star. She’s all bleached hair, bronzed skin, and perfectly sculpted arms and legs. There’s no trace of the British actress whose career skyrocketed after Downton Abbey; she’s simply Pam. – Patricia Fuentes, Ask

What About Seth Rogen and Nick Offerman?

(Photo by Hulu)

Rogen is in top form here, but the show belongs to James and Stan as Pam and Tommy. – Chris Evangelista, SlashFilm

Pam & Tommy starts like a breathless tale of stoner failure, and that hook should appeal to Rogen’s fans; he makes something far more sympathetic of his loser character than most actors could. – Eddie Harrison,

Seth Rogen plays that schlub and exudes the kind of affable loser energy that the Coen Brothers love; like Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona or The Dude in The Big Lebowski, he’s not a bad guy but either finds himself in over his head or caught up in a gambit way out of his league. – Erik Anderson, AwardsWatch

It’s hard enough to sympathize with Rand, whom Rogen makes into an amiably pathetic dreamer — not an innocent by any means, but far from the worst figure in a story that features a menacing Andrew Dice Clay as a threatening money lender named Butchie, Don Harvey as notorious fixer Anthony Pellicano and Maxwell Caulfield as Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. Offerman provides his own layer of sleaze as Uncle Miltie, while Taylor Schilling is effectively appealing as Rand’s porn star ex-wife, a character written almost exclusively so that she can articulate the series’ themes in the closing episodes. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

How Is the Show’s Production Value and Tone?

(Photo by Hulu)

Nudity is much less common here than you may expect and mostly limited to that second episode where, besides the chatty fast-moving penis, we also get a glimpse of Pam’s prosthetic breasts. Not that long gone are the days when actress Emilia Clarke asked for nudity equality between men and women in Game of Thrones. Pam & Tommy achieves that balance. It was important for the show to do it. – Patricia Fuentes, Ask

If there’s one thing that Pam & Tommy gets right, it’s ’90s nostalgia. Everything from the costumes to the set design feels authentic and, most importantly, lived in. The show also wisely chooses to deploy past Top 20 hits in key moments instead of oversaturating the episodes with a ’90s soundtrack. It’s enough to set the audience specifically in mid-’90s without being distracting. – Olivia Truffaut-Wong, AV Club

Gillespie and his co-directors go overboard with style, drenching “Pam & Tommy” in manic excess. Gillespie, who also directed last year’s “Cruella,” clearly loves needle-drops, and the soundtrack is booming with a constant barrage of pop hits. Gillespie also clearly loves the work of Martin Scorsese, and he’s fond of aping a lot of Scorsese’s style here (he even uses several songs that are prominent on Scorsese soundtracks, including the song “Stardust” by Billy Ward & His Dominoes, which was used so prominently in “GoodFellas”). All of this overabundant style leads to a scene that will no doubt be buzzed about: a conversation between Tommy and his talking penis, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. “Pam & Tommy” deserves credit for not shying away from showcasing the member in full, talking form, but the length of the scene (no pun intended) kills any momentum.- Chris Evangelista, SlashFilm

Pam & Tommy has a similar tone to Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (also starring Sebastian Stan), which follows all of the absurdity that surrounds high-profile crimes. However, Gillespie doesn’t make light of the crimes. Both the series and I, Tonya have genuinely heartbreaking moments, particularly for Pam and Tonya. The tracking shots and close-ups are a lot alike as well, giving it a documentary-like style without the shakiness. – Cassondra Feltus, Black Girl Nerds

Whiplash settles in as the series vacillates in tone, trying all at once to be a crime thriller, a raunchy sex comedy, a critique of the media, and a reflection on a very famous woman’s inner turmoil. It never figures out how to effectively tie those elements together, nor is it able to successfully make the case that Gauthier’s story is just as important as Pamela’s, despite spending a not insignificant amount of time on him. – Allison Piccuro, TV guide

What Overarching Themes Are Explored?

(Photo by Hulu)

Much more interesting than the marriage is the show’s portrait of the internet’s early days. When Pam and Tommy express hope that the tape can be suppressed, it’s not because they’re naïve. It’s because it’s the ’90s, when a public embarrassment could disappear as quickly as a day-old newspaper instead of following a person until the end of time. – Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

What follows is an exploration of Pamela and Tommy’s tumultuous relationship, nascent Internet privacy laws and some key building blocks for a societal shift in which fans came to believe that their ownership of stars extended beyond their public-facing personae. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

This series is based on a true story, and it tells that story, but it also touches on topics like consent and abuse. – Tessa Smith, Mama’s Geeky

The tape’s trajectory from a personal item so valuable it was in a safe to a video sold in stores worldwide is a story about sexism, power, and the patriarchal way we view women’s bodies and sexuality. But, thanks in part to the decision to split time between Pamela and Tommy and Rand, Pam & Tommy fails to really dig into any of these themes, nor does it explore the power dynamics of Hollywood in any meaningful way. – Olivia Truffaut-Wong, AV Club

Any Final Thoughts?

Pam and Tommy

(Photo by Hulu)

“Pam & Tommy,” despite its lightweight protagonists, is an accurate reflection of the sexual and cultural mores of just a generation ago. – Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

While the moments that focus on Pamela almost manage to make the case for Pam & Tommy’s existence, it’s hard to reckon with the real Anderson’s role in it all. (Stan has said he has had contact with Lee.) The series is, in theory, on her side, showing how unfairly disparaged she was by the media and the American legal system. It understands that she was violated by Gauthier, by everyone in the world who gleefully contributed to the spread of a private moment (a particularly chilling scene finds a shell-shocked Pamela catching Baywatch crew members watching the tape on set), but it seems to fail to recognize that without Anderson’s consent to tell this story at all, Pam & Tommy just ends up feeling like another violation. – Allison Piccuro, TV guide

Pam & Tommy is one of the first surprises of the year. A rollercoaster with an important lesson about privacy and fame. – Jesus Agudo, eCartelera

We’ve made a mess of celebrity in this country. Pam & Tommy, if nothing else, captures that. – Daniel Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter

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