Directed by: Craig Gillespie, Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Hannah Fidell
Distributed by: Hulu
Written by Anna Harrison
Sex is commonplace nowadays. Of course, the act of sex itself has always been commonplace, but the wall of privacy that usually kept it separate from those not partaking has been chipped away at little by little over the years until now it barely exists at all—from PornHub to your run-of-the-mill Tinder rhymes-with-sick pics, sex is everywhere. Every once in a while, nudes or sex tapes will get leaked from someone famous, but these all fade from the public eye after a week or so and those involved move on with the occasional under-the-radar lawsuit.
Not so with Pamela Anderson. The sex tape she made with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee became a viral video before YouTube after it was stolen and distributed far and wide without their consent using the still-budding internet. What is now commonplace was then novel, especially when it involved a woman as sought after as Anderson, but even as hordes of people watched her body for their own pleasure, Anderson was condemned for doing the very thing that people were watching for.
To pile onto the cruelty, only a decade or so later, Kim Kardashian’s career would begin thanks to her own sex tape, and a decade after that no one bats an eye at a sporadic nude leak (except for those involved, of course). Had the tape between Anderson and Lee been released later, it might have just been a blip in the radar—then again, would the world of online porn exist as it does without it? Would Kim Kardashian have become a household name had the sex tape road not been already paved before her? Anderson was a sacrificial lamb on which our modern relationship with celebrities was built. It is an unenviable position to be in.
“Pam & Tommy” understands this. It also understands the bizarre-to-the-point-of-comedy antics that led to the stealing of the sex tape and its eventual distribution on the internet, chronicled in a “Rolling Stone” article by Amanda Chicago Lewis. It doesn’t always succeed in balancing these two concepts, but it gives a good go of things, led by zippy direction (the first three episodes are directed by executive producer Craig Gillespie, who took another salacious ’90s story and made it sympathetic in “I, Tonya”) and strong performances.
Our main players are Anderson (Lily James), Lee (Sebastian Stan), and a disgruntled craftsman named Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), who has been working on Lee’s mansion and subject to his frequent mood swings. After Lee dismisses Gauthier for shoddy work without pay, Gauthier breaks into the house (a fun heist involving dog cosplay) and steals Lee’s safe, whereupon he discovers the tape.
The first episode, told almost exclusively from Gauthier’s perspective, plays into preconceived notions of Anderson and Lee as sex-crazed lunatics out of touch with real, working class America; episode two ignores Gauthier and focuses on the whirlwind (read: 96-hour) romance between Anderson and Lee, absurd and charming in equal measure. Yes, of course they were attracted to each other for the obvious reasons, but there is something more there that makes you want to root for these crazy kids even though you know it can’t last. “Pam & Tommy” quickly deconstructs our notions of the two, though plenty outlandish moments remain—there is a scene involving Lee’s penis, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, holding a conversation with its owner, which will probably remain the most bonkers scene in television for all of 2022, and maybe beyond.
After episode two, Pam and Tommy’s life begins to splinter, and so do our narratives. The less interesting track belongs to Gauthier and porn producer “Uncle Miltie” (Nick Offerman), who try to work out a way to make a profit off this tape and eventually land on selling it via the internet. Rogen and Offerman are both solid, but the details about how exactly Miltie screws Gauthier out of his hard-fought money are less interesting than the second track of “Pam and Tommy,” the one about the titular duo.
James and Stan are both excellent, bringing interiority to these larger-than-life figures underneath fake tattoos and nipple rings for Stan and fake everything for James. (I shudder to think of how long those two spent in the makeup chair every morning.) Lee is grappling (poorly) with his waning relevance, but Anderson is still wide-eyed and optimistic about Hollywood—especially her new project, the disastrous “Barb Wire”—and her sweetness coaxes a softer side out of Lee, though glimmers of his physical volatility are more than present throughout the show. The release of their sex tape doesn’t begin their splintering, but it certainly speeds things along.
Of course, the tape does not affect Lee and Anderson equally. Anderson bears the brunt of it, because everyone wants to take advantage of her body (a scene on the “Baywatch” set involves assistants meticulously moving aside her bathing suit to reveal the exact right amount of ass) but the moment that she’s shown actually having sex, she becomes a pariah, demonstrating the irony of misogyny and objectification: onlookers get satisfaction in viewing women as sexual objects yet throw obscene labels when these women have sex with men that aren’t them. Lee, on the other hand, gets complimented on his ability to bag a catch like Anderson: he’s cool, he’s got a big piece of junk, he got to have sex with living, breathing male fantasy Pamela Anderson. There are moments when the show gets too obvious about this, but it’s hard to be too critical when the world itself had such an obviously misogynistic reaction to the tape. If the world wasn’t subtle about it, the show has no need for delicacy, though its most effective moments are the quieter ones.
All this commentary hits a snag when you realize the real Pamela Anderson’s objections to the show: she turned down multiple attempts from the production to contact her (though Tommy Lee would speak with Stan) and while she has yet to comment on its existence, her recent announcement of a Netflix documentary “to tell the real story” is a pretty good indicator she’s not a fan. And who can blame her? To have your trauma replayed on screen for entertainment must be, well, traumatic—her sex tape was distributed nonconsensually, and now Hulu is broadcasting her life story without her say. Indeed, when the show’s Pam and Tommy sue Penthouse for an invasion of privacy and Penthouse claims it can publish photos due to its First Amendment rights, it feels like an eerie mirror of the show itself: someone else once again using Anderson’s image without her permission to glue eyeballs to the screen. Is there any self-reflection in this on the show’s part? Eh. Not really.
But “Pam & Tommy,” fortunately, doesn’t lack for empathy. Anderson might never watch it, but it largely succeeds in rehabilitating her image, which has remained stuck on various versions of the word “slut” since the release of the tape; here, we see a kind-hearted woman whose body gets ripped away from her in a way that makes the gratuitous boob shots of “Baywatch” seem like small fry. We get firsthand seats to the anguish it causes, the turmoil that begins to hammer away at her personal and public life, and for the first time for many viewers—myself included—Anderson becomes more than tits and an ass. The public, by and large, has never allowed Anderson to be anything other than a body to be looked at, and the distribution of her sex tape only worsened that, but James gives Anderson a three-dimensionality that has been historically denied to her in everything from “Baywatch” to “Borat.” Is that enough to justify the existence of “Pam & Tommy” and to bring the sex tape back into the public conversation? Maybe, maybe not. But far worse things about Pamela Anderson have been made.
“Pam & Tommy” Trailer
“Pam & Tommy” is available to stream on Hulu.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.