Saturday, September 24

Pam & Tommy: Disney’s sex tape tale makes for outrageous and unmissable TV | television & radio

It’s a series that is at least partly about Tommy Lee’s penis, so let’s talk about length. Pam & Tommy (Star on Disney+, from Wednesday) is an eight-part series that could have been a movie instead.

You realize this about seven minutes in: the first episode, which almost exclusively follows Seth Rogen’s pornographer turned builder Rand Gauthier, takes its time with every single scene. We see Rand nail together a bed while Pamela Anderson and Lee have outrageously loud sex upstairs. We watch him drive home, put his feet up on the sofa, light a cigarette then stub it out. We flashback to his childhood to find out why he doesn’t like pissing his pants. We see him try to charm his boss into helping him hijack a safe from Lee’s unfinished Malibu mansion, and we see that boss umm and ahh and eventually say no. All of this takes ages. All of this could have been cut. We could have had a neat two-and-a-half hour feature film, and it would have been fine. Instead, we have eight hours of streaming to do.

Normally, I would be against this – I still have four episodes of Succession to catch up on; can people stop making unmissable legacy TV for one minute! – but Pam & Tommy is so good, so fun, that the detail makes the world richer and denser and more of a hoot than popping to the cinema. First, the casting, which I never normally comment on (‘Yeah, this professional actor is good in the role they were professionally cast for’), is perfect. When they were announced, there was bafflement over the choice of Lily James for Anderson and Sebastian Stan for Lee – they both have such gorgeous thoughtful faces, how could they possibly play two 90s dumbasses? – but they are both on top form. They are magnetically attracted to each other, and play lovestruck honeymooners like two feral animals who communicate in grunts. In the episode where they fall in love, they barely even talk. It’s so, so good.

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Plotting unseen behind them, Rogen plays a character who isn’t a chuckling stoner for once, and he’s all the better for it. Gauthier, working on the remodel of Lee’s house, is hurt by his failure to pay in advance (again, Stan plays this perfectly: every time he prowls on screen he is at once sweetly simple and unknowingly threatening – always two steps away from holding a hunting rifle while wearing a leopard-print kimono and saying: “I’m joking, dude!”) and too straightforward to know what he’s doing is cold, naked revenge.

Lily James as Pamela Anderson and Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee in Pam & Tommy.
Giving it their all … Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Pam & Tommy. Photograph: Erin Simkin/Hulu

Giving each character all that screen time lets us add layers to who they are and their motivations: did I need to know Gauthier is still pining for an ex and Lee is dreading the rise of Seattle grunge? How much of Anderson’s barely seen frailty after being dismissed on the Baywatch set did I really need to see? But in an era of Marvel megamovies (also starring Stan, also available on Disney+), it’s nice to watch something that doesn’t just assign goodies and baddies. We spend eight hours learning various shades of gray while Rogen wears a sick mullet and gets a succession of big fits off. That’s what TV can do that films can’t.

Here’s another thing TV can do that films would struggle with: an extended sequence in which Stan talks to his own CGI penis (the “mouth” of the penis is exactly what you think it is). I suppose this is what Disney started the Star umbrella for: to get away from all-ages kids movies and show people on ecstasy having sex in a bath, which is most of episode two. Again, I back the gratuitousness of it: if you’re going to pivot to adult themes after 70-plus years of Snow White, go hard or go home. You do sort of feel like that high, shrieking sound is Walt Disney’s snap-frozen head revolving at high speed, but that’s not a problem for me to solve. That’s for Disneyland to figure out how to make a rollercoaster out of this series, somehow.

Could it have been a film? Remove easily. Could it have been shorter? Oh significantly. Is there something to be said for letting everyone have the time of their life and letting the fun go on for as long as possible? Pam & Tommy really does argue convincingly so. I didn’t think I’d say this, but: can every story be way too long now? Can we all just switch to baths again instead of showers?

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