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‘Pam & Tommy’ and the art of looking back

Sebastian Stan and Lily James in "Pam & Tommy," premiering Wednesday on Hulu.Erin Simkin/HULU

In recent years, we’ve seen a boom in strong scripted limited series about not-so-distant cultural and historical events, from the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace to the rise and fall of Fox News’ Roger Ailes. I’m not talking about ripped-from-the-headlines bosh like those Lifetime movies about William & Kate & Meghan & Harry (a boon for ginger actors everywhere). I mean more ambitious miniseries like “Chernobyl,” or “Mrs. America” and its take on the heroes and villains of the 1970s fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, or “When They See Us,” the story of the “Exonerated Five” — formerly the “Central Park Five.”

These exceptional shows stand out because they use hindsight to deepen what we already know. They don’t just vividly recount or sensationalize big news events still fresh in our memory; they take a wiser, broader point of view, giving new context to our shared past, applying our more evolved perspectives to them.


They look back in wisdom.

I’ve been thinking about what makes TV’s takes on recent history either worthwhile or contemptible while watching the miniseries “Pam & Tommy,” which premieres Wednesday on Hulu. I was assuming the eight-episode show would fall into the latter category, the category that relies on tabloid excess to grab viewers, given the subject matter — the leaked honeymoon sex tape made by “Baywatch” actress Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee that went viral in the mid-1990s. The couple were a paparazzi goldmine after their whirlwind romance, and I thought the miniseries, from “The Wrestler” writer Robert Siegel and “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie, would just be more carnival sideshow content.

But it’s much better than that, as it aims to explore what the tape triggered culturally, in terms of the further dissolution of privacy with the growth of the Internet, as well as the sexism that played a role in every step of the tape’s journey through pop culture. “Pam & Tommy” also takes on the guy responsible for leaking the tape, Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier, a contractor at Lee’s home who stole the tape in an act of revenge for having been fired. But it’s the material about Anderson’s humiliations, and not necessarily Lee, that elevates it all. Sebastian Stan and Lily James are remarkable as Tommy and Pam, bringing many layers to people who’ve long been seen as cartoons.


The first two seasons of “American Crime Story,” Ryan Murphy’s anthology series, were models of how to rethink and reevaluate, instead of merely rehashing. The first, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” had big points to make about mass media, the seed that grew into the Kardashian-ization of America, and the sexism directed at prosecutor Marcia Clark. The second, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” directly addressed the homophobia that enabled killer Andrew Cunanan to move forward on his spree. The third season of the show, “Impeachment,” relied a bit too much on retelling, but it also offered a reframing of Monica Lewinsky’s role in the scandal from an abuse-of-power angle. It was a mixed bag.

“Chernobyl” was especially revelatory about the 1986 disaster, as it took on the dangers of ignoring science as well as the insidiousness of Soviet propaganda and its attendant disrespect for human life. In an era of when “Fake News” has run rampant, not least of all when it comes to the science of a pandemic, the “Chernobyl” perspective felt refreshingly timely. And “When They See Us” made the systemic racism involved in the miscarriage of justice impossible to ignore, while it disentangled the men and gave each one his own story. It, too, felt sadly timely.


I’m looking for more of this kind of contextualization as a group of new recent histories come to TV in the weeks after “Pam & Tommy.” Will Shonda Rhimes’s “Inventing Anna,” which premieres on Netflix on Feb. 11, bring a new understanding of the Russian-born scam artist Anna Sorokin and the New York society types she conned in the 2010s? Or is it too soon to reassess the case, something a recent history piece is always in danger of. It’s a juicy story, but I hope it also has something relevant to say. One thing is likely: Julia Garner will shine as the duper.

“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” is up next, due Feb. 27 on Showtime. It’s about the rise and fall of Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick, who’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He left the company in 2017 (and stepped down from the board in 2019) for cultivating an offensive, sexist, exploitive workplace culture. “The Dropout” premieres on March 3 on Hulu, stars Amanda Seyfried as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who was found guilty in early January on four charges of defrauding investors after the fall of her blood-testing startup. And “WeCrashed” is arriving on Apple TV+ on March 18, telling the tale of the bad behavior and fall from grace of the founder of the office rental startup WeWork, Adam Neumann (who’ll be played by Jared Leto).


Here’s hoping these tales of disgrace become something more than yet another opportunity for schadenfreude.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.