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There’s more than a sex tape under scrutiny in ‘Pam & Tommy’

Lily James and Sebastian Stan in "Pam & Tommy." which premieres Wednesday on Hulu.Erin Simkin/Hulu via AP

The Hulu miniseries “Pam & Tommy” is probably better than you expect. It’s not merely a prurient look into the bedazzled lifestyles of the rich and famous and a pair of 1990s tabloid celebrities, “Baywatch” actress Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. It tracks one of the seminal events in what has become a fast erosion of privacy across 25 years of the Internet and viral video, and, even more fiercely, it explores the hypocrisy of American culture when it comes to women and sexuality.

The eight-episode Hulu miniseries, which premieres Wednesday, is fast-paced and entertaining, as it gives us the couple’s whirlwind romance and their absurd excesses. It has a comic veneer, including one scene featuring, yes, Tommy’s talking penis (which is voiced by Massachusetts’ very own Jason Mantzoukas).


But “Pam & Tommy” offers a consistent layer of cultural criticism just below the surface, the bass underneath all the catchier high notes. It seems obvious, but Pamela Anderson’s career as a Playboy sex symbol did not mean it was morally acceptable to release or watch a stolen video of her having sex. Similarly, it also seems obvious that the leak of the tape was harder on Anderson than on her husband, who found himself getting high-fived for the size of his penis. Watching Pam reckon with cheers from men and sneers from women is one of the show’s more painful experiences.

The eight-episode series is also an acting showcase. Beyond the stellar transformative makeup jobs, Lily James and Sebastian Stan are phenomenal as Pam and Tommy, and Seth Rogen has good moments, too, as Rand Gauthier, the contractor who was stiffed by Tommy and stole the tape as revenge. James and Stan are all in as the randy, ambitious, and at times unexpectedly naïve couple, conveying the kind of unstable chemical reaction that reminded me at moments of Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb in “Sid and Nancy.” Stan is intensely physical as he makes Lee into a big, bratty child whose rage can explode at a moment’s notice. He is riveting. James is kittenish, as expected, but she lets us see Pam’s internal struggles over her own life choices.


Rogen’s story line brings the show’s action into the then-nascent world of online porn, where we meet Nick Offerman’s porn honcho, and it also points to some of the darker shades of the series as he wrestles with his own conscience. At first, you might even root for Rand, after Tommy rips him off and pulls a gun on him. In “Pam & Tommy,” Tommy is a full-on jerk. But Rand is drawn to the idea of karma, and that leads him to some complex self-examination. In some ways, he is an audience surrogate.

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