The Pamela Anderson of “Pam & Tommy” idolizes Jane Fonda. Early in Hulu’s new limited series, Pam is mired on “Baywatch,” where the camera leeringly gazes at her red-swimsuited frame. She needs a rebrand. Meeting with a new publicist, Pam (played by Lily James) describes her role model: “When she first started out, she was just this girl next door, and then she did ‘Barbarella’ and she became this huge sex symbol. And then she turned around and she started doing all these serious Oscar roles.” Pam runs through a few more of Fonda’s highlights as an actor and activist as the camera pushes in, adding, “She was all these totally opposite things, all at once.”
Anderson herself has not been afforded that luxury — in large part because she lost control of her image in a manner that came to seem final and irrevocable (even more severely than Fonda did with “Barbarella”). “Pam & Tommy” restages that loss, focusing on the fallout of the broad consumption of Anderson’s stolen sex tape, one she made with her then-husband, Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan). If not an outright reclamation project, “Pam & Tommy” is an attempt to complicate a tabloid story. As a dramatization of events that have slipped into history, “Pam & Tommy” is part of a crowded genre. But its curiosity and sensitivity toward its subjects set it apart.
The story moves through landmarks of Anderson and Lee’s public lives: Picked from obscurity to be a Labatt beer spokesmodel, Anderson eventually left her native Canada for Los Angeles. In Lee, she found both a powerful physical connection and an object for her fantasy of togetherness, a dream that hinged both on their flourishing as artists and on peaceable domesticity. But the theft of their intimate tape — by a character played, in a plodding subplot, by Seth Rogen — brought to the fore the differences in sensibility between the couple, as well as certain hard lessons about what Anderson would be allowed to achieve as a figure of scandal.
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.
And make no mistake — despite the double-barreled title, this is Pam’s show. Stan’s strong performance as Tommy is framed through the rocker’s impact on his wife: He’s her teammate in combating scandal and the provocateur whose outbursts she cannot withstand. But it’s Pam who holds one’s gaze. James, an alumnus of “Downton Abbey,” plays her as a congenital optimist who grows chastened and weary as each seeming chance to push beyond the red swimsuit evades her. Tommy perpetually wants to amplify, to react; Pam is a force for deliberation and calm.
Which makes for a second way that the show belongs to Pam; its surprising lightness of touch has more of her meditativeness than Tommy’s rage. That’s unexpected as the pilot was directed by Craig Gillespie, whose 2017 film “I, Tonya” was a snide burlesque of the Tonya Harding story. There are similarities between that project and this — including a focus on bumbling criminality among supporting characters. (The Rogen story, about the contractor who cracked the couple’s safe to pilfer the tape, can’t find its tone over much running time.) But especially relative to “I, Tonya,” this series refreshes with its willingness to see in Anderson something other than a didactic moral lesson. She is, first, a person.
And that person has blind spots: Without Anderson’s participation, this production has free rein to craft a fully rounded character, one who is at times willfully obtuse about the realities of her marriage and her career. This makes a contrast with another recent ’90s dramatization, FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” which counted subject Monica Lewinsky as an executive producer. While the show grappled with massive themes, it struggled to find enough distance to tell a coherent story about its lead.
Pamela Anderson’s story is doleful — she wanted to make an impact and be seen for who she really was, and she had the opportunity taken from her before she even figured out the answer to the question. And that’s enough to hang a series on. “Pam & Tommy” observes its heroine without leaning too hard on What It All Means. Anderson and Lee were victims of a high-tech crime — the online publication of their sex tape — at the dawn of the internet, and the series acknowledges the inherent noteworthiness of that without trying to be about something it is not. In resisting the urge to reduce its leads to symbols, “Pam & Tommy” is a surprisingly gentle corrective to a world that’s treated Anderson, especially, as one for decades. Being a sex symbol can be fun and remunerative, for a while. But it takes thought and care to get the world to notice the human underneath.
“Pam & Tommy” launches on Hulu Wednesday, Feb. 2.