“Pam & Tommy” Elevates The ’90s Nostalgia Genre (With A Talking Penis)
The new Hulu miniseries about Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson is a fun, sometimes zany romp. But it lacks imagination in its portrayal of Anderson.
Before there was Bennifer or Brangelina or Gigi and Zayn, there was Pam and Tommy. The ’90s pairing of Playboy playmate and Baywatch star Pamela Anderson with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee seemed to be one of those celebrity mashups perfectly designed by a tabloid editor for content.
The public lapped up details about the louche rock star and the wholesome pinup — how they met at a club where he licked her face, got married in Cancún four days later, and began living out domestic bliss in a Malibu mansion with a giant swing.
But just months after that wedding, a “sex tape” — in retrospect, a term up there with “wardrobe malfunction” as a sign of the times — leaked to the public. It was one of the first celebrity sex tape scandals, and it took on a life of its own just as the internet was reaching households, forever reshaping their images in pop culture.
Hulu’s new eight-part miniseries, Pam & Tommy, out on Feb. 2, is one of the more original looks back at a ’90s scandal so far. Maybe it’s just because the era feels more distant, but unlike Ryan Murphy’s recent revisitation of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Craig Gillespie–directed series doesn’t just feel like a rehash of what we thought we knew.
The show zeroes in on the story of the tape’s leak, partly from the perspective of the worker, Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), who stole it when Lee (Sebastian Stan) fired him from a house renovation.
The narrative of the tape is juxtaposed with the tale of Anderson (Lily James) and Lee’s relationship, and the alternating angles work effectively to maintain interest. But the use of the scandal as a way of exploring their relationship dynamic loses steam before the show’s end. And its commentary on gender mores doesn’t quite live up to the miniseries’ performances and stylish production.
At the heart of Pam & Tommy is its chronicle of Lee and Anderson’s romance, and the performances make that romance come alive. From the moment he appears on screen, Sebastian Stan embodies the rocker’s sinewy reptilian swagger and boyishly raspy voice. You can almost smell the pot coming off him as he licks Anderson at Hollywood’s Sanctuary club during their first meeting.
James also perfectly captures Anderson’s vibe, especially her girly, kittenish mode of existence, from her shoulder positioning to her voice, which sometimes veered into parody. James’s portrayal of her almost feels like a commentary on the experience of watching the real-life Anderson.
The performances really help give a sense of what the couple saw in each other. After their first night together, Lee consults with his penis — it’s animated for the show — about marrying Anderson. “Heather was too conservative,” he points out to the appendage, referring to previous flame Heather Locklear. “Pam knows how to have fun. She can be wild.” Anderson liked that he was spiritual and open to building their own meditation gazebo. “So Buddhist!” she says. “Just super fucking chill,” he says.
You root for these two kids, even as they have sex all over the screen and record their honeymoon intimacy. But soon enough, Lee’s anger and outbursts inadvertently set off the revenge plot that would change their lives, when he gets angry not at the paparazzi but at the electrician and onetime porn actor in charge of their home renovations.
But the show never quite fully nails Anderson’s actual opinions on gender and power the way it does with her look.
The heist subplot and Gauthier’s attempts to commercialize the tape are made compelling by Rogen’s performance as a vulnerable schmo and perpetual loser. And the hijinks that ensue after the couple discovers that the tape has been stolen make for good TV.
The main goal of the ‘90s and ‘00s revisitation genre has been to transcend nostalgia, often by reconsidering the gender politics and the women at the center of so-called scandals from a new vantage point. In that vein, the show focuses on the fallout of the tape, and how it made its way onto the internet and into public discourse and late-night jokes.
It makes the obvious point that the tape wasn’t funny for Anderson in the way it could be for Lee, whose mythos as a cock rock star the tape further solidified. In contrast, one feels Anderson’s frustration and feelings of violation from the robbery and leak from the moment she comes upon a TV crew watching the tape as she’s trying to work.
The series attempts to flesh out Anderson’s perspective, including episodes with her backstory, showing how she flies out to the Playboy mansion from Canada after getting discovered at a baseball game, and how her boyfriend is threatened by her success.
There’s a tendency in revisitations of spectacularly femme white women to replace slut-shaming condescension with intellectualized condescension — as in “oh, she was really secretly a feminist.” And Pam & Tommy provides a new entry for this trope. As she tries to move from Baywatch to the big screen, Anderson has big hopes for the 1996 movie Barb Wire, the dystopian comic book fantasy that was supposed to be her big entry into movie stardom. (It later flopped in theaters and became a joke at the time.) During one scene, she explains that she sees herself as a multifaceted woman, like Jane Fonda who had her Barbarella bombshell era but was also an activist.
As the tape becomes an inescapable cultural phenomenon, Anderson pushes back at it in big melodramatic moments. She admonishes Jay Leno for his jokes about the tape (it wasn’t as dramatic or pointed in real life) and delivers a mini monologue to lawyers, where she argues that the courts think that because she’d been naked before she couldn’t really claim a right to privacy.
But the show never quite fully nails Anderson’s actual opinions on gender and power the way it does with her look. (There’s a reason her very particular mixture of empowerment and conservatism later led to her taking up Julian Assange as a friend and favorite “free speech” project.) It might be because the writing draws from Lee’s autobiography, Tommyland, and a Rolling Stone article from the point of view of Gauthier, but it often feels like it loses the specificity of Anderson’s perspective even as it tries to explore it. The show never feels like it’s from her perspective.
Lee, for his part, is portrayed as a supportive husband almost to a fault, encouraging Anderson as she promotes Barb Wire while trying to be understanding about her anger and frustration about the tape’s effect on her career. But it’s almost as if the show fears confronting Lee’s eventual physical abuse of Anderson and the toxicity of their actual relationship. (The domestic abuse and court case eventually appear on screen at the end.) In contrast, the show has her almost goading him into insecurity about her bigger stardom.
Still, Pam & Tommy is savvy about the sex tape as a cultural artifact and lightning rod upon which everyone projected different things. It makes the point that Gauthier wanted to take revenge against Lee, and Anderson was just collateral damage. Toward the end, Gauthier tries to apologize to Anderson and realizes his plan had failed, because, as his ex-wife points out, it just made Lee more likable. “I gotta say, I kinda like him,” she says. “He’s so in touch with his feelings. He’s like some kind of sensitive caveman.” In some ways, to its detriment, that’s the show’s perspective too.
The tape was compelling, she argues, because key moments were shot by Anderson herself. After a cum shot, Anderson flips the camera and focuses not on Lee’s dick but on his face, highlighting his happiness in being inside of her. “You never see that in a porno,” Gauthier’s ex-wife says, kind of wistfully. And the show itself could have benefitted from more of that originality of perspective. ●