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'Pam & Tommy' asks smart questions about gossip, sexism and technology

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last week the Hulu streaming service premiered the first three episodes of an eight-part series called "Pam & Tommy." It's the story of "Baywatch" actress Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee - specifically, the story of their private sex tape and how it was stolen in 1995 and subsequently distributed over the then-new World Wide Web. Our TV critic David Bianculli says "Pam & Tommy" is a lot more entertaining than he expected and a lot more thought-provoking, too. Here's David's review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The eight-part Hulu miniseries "Pam & Tommy" begins in 1995. That's back when Blockbuster Video stores were everywhere, the internet was largely unexplored territory and "Baywatch," with its sexy lifeguards running in slow motion, was one of the more popular shows on television. One of the stars of "Baywatch," rising sex symbol Pamela Anderson, had just returned from a working trip to Cancun, where she and Tommy Lee, the high-energy drummer for Motley Crue, had spent some time together and impulsively gotten married.

The miniseries begins when they're back in California in Tommy Lee's Malibu home, which is being renovated by a construction crew, including a carpenter named Rand, played by Seth Rogen. The first episode gives us Rand's point of view - how Tommy Lee takes advantage of him and refuses to pay him and how Rand, in retaliation, plots to steal Tommy Lee's standalone safe, which is filled with guns, some cash and, Rand later discovers, one very intimate videotape. Rand, a former porn actor, uses his past connections to begin copying and distributing the sex tape on VHS and then, through other connections, selling it via a website on this new thing called the World Wide Web.

The "Pam & Tommy" miniseries is created by Robert Siegel, who also wrote two of the episodes. Siegel already has written two really good movies focusing on marginal, down-on-their-luck characters - "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke and "The Big Fan" (ph) with Patton Oswalt. So focusing on Rand, the little guy feeling abused by pampered pop stars, seems a natural direction for him to go especially since this TV series is based in part on Rand's improbable story as told in a thorough Rolling Stone article from 2014.

But "Pam & Tommy" the miniseries isn't content to tell only that story. It keeps shifting gears. Through flashbacks, it tells the story of the couple's rapid courtship and what amounts to the origin story of Pam Anderson from Canadian waitress to Playboy cover girl. And then once the VHS is released without consent, the story shifts again, this time asking lots of very smart questions about the spread of technology, the toxic nature and double standards of gossip and the many ways Pam Anderson was victimized that Tommy Lee, as a man, was not.

The first part of "Pam & Tommy" shows us brief glimpses of the couple almost as caricatures. But once the perspective shifts, we see them differently until, midway through, our sympathies are almost completely with Pam. These are fairly seismic shifts. And one thing they require are performances that are more than mere impersonations.

"Pam & Tommy" hits gold here. Not only is Seth Rogen invaluable as Rand - broadly comic in some scenes, quietly pathetic in others - but the two leads are surprisingly almost shockingly effective. Sebastian Stan, who spent the last few years playing Bucky Barnes in the "Avengers" movies and TV spinoffs, is a wild child indeed as Tommy Lee but somehow charismatic. And Pamela Anderson is played by British actress Lily James, whose recent roles have tended towards the superwholesome - Lady Rose in "Downton Abbey," the supportive girlfriend in "Yesterday" and the title role in "Cinderella." What a triumphant, unexpected transformation. She not only nails Pam's voice and manner but lets us behind the very structured facade.

Here in Episode 2, Pam and Tommy Lee are on a flight home from their time in Cancun. They are now husband and wife but hardly know each other, so Tommy tries to correct that. It's a quiet but pivotal scene, and both actors hit the humorous subtext without going too far. We're laughing with them, not at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAM & TOMMY")

SEBASTIAN STAN: (As Tommy Lee) So, like, what's your favorite movie?

LILY JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Yeah, you mean, like, all-time? "Pretty Woman."

STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Cool.

JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Yeah. Well, I love romantic movies and - you know, like "Ghost," "Sleepless In Seattle." You?

STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Favorite movie?

JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Yeah.

STAN: (As Tommy Lee) "Child's Play," "Nightmare On Elm Street," "Hellraiser II," "Candyman."

JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Oh, you like the scary stuff (laughter).

STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Yeah, horror. That's my jam (laughter). What's your favorite food?

JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) French fries.

STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Yeah, I [expletive] love French fries.

BIANCULLI: By the time Pamela is deposed by a lawyer about the sex tape or interviewed by a leering Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," we can feel what she's having to endure. And the inequities, seen from a modern perspective, are more than clear. They're almost haunting. When you start watching "Pam & Tommy," you may be laughing or smirking, but by the end, you'll be taking it and its issues a lot more seriously.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. Future episodes of "Pam & Tommy" will go up each Wednesday on Hulu.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the history of the acting technique known as the method from the people who created and fought over it to the actors who practiced it and how it fell out of favor. Our guest will be cultural critic Isaac Butler, author of the new book "The Method." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE BIG BAND'S "DON IS")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE BIG BAND'S "DON IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.