Imagine a world in which a celebrity sex tape wouldn’t make any money. But in the early internet era of the 1990s, it’s just how it is. As one porn magnate points out in the new Hulu series Pam & Tommy’s, stolen sex tapes invite police to either the video store or theater playing the film, and then the whole thing’s over.
But then the “World Wide Web” came along and … well, there’s a lot of porn out there. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee were among the first celebrities to have their private affairs shared against their consent, victims of the later-termed “revenge porn” in the burgeoning world of click-to-order bootleg VHS tapes.
Pam & Tommy is most concerned with the how and why of it all: How did that Hi8 tape get from a locked safe to cultural punchline? And why did the public react the way it did? It’s the latest in a long line of TV series, movies, and podcasts that are trying to get to the bottom of such questions. And while Pam & Tommy makes its case, it’s not as cut and dry as the show wants to think.
What is Pam & Tommy?
Pam & Tommy is a show about Pam and Tommy — you guessed this maybe; it’s specifically Pamela Anderson (star of Baywatch, Home Improvement, and more) and Tommy Lee, the drummer for Mötley Crüe. The two were married from 1995 to 1998, during which time their sex tape was stolen, sold, and ultimately widely distributed. The eight-episode miniseries tracks the lead up and the fallout of that home movie, and the impact it had on their lives, as well as the broader culture.
Who’s behind the show?
Pam & Tommy comes from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the producing duo behind works as varied as Superbad, 50/50, The Boys, and Invincible, who snatched up the rights to a 2014 Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis, which detailed the crimes from the perspective of Rand Gauthier, the man who stole the safe and sold the tape. (Rogen also plays Gauthier in the show). The first two episodes are also written by Robert Siegel (who also produces the series), and who also wrote The Wrestler.
The first three episodes are directed by Craig Gillespie, the director behind I, Tonya; while the show doesn’t have the same naked self-awareness as the movie, there’s certainly a familiar hum to the tempo of it. In front of the camera, the buzziest bit of creative energy comes from stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan, who play Anderson and Lee with the aid of truly impressive prosthetics and makeup.
What’s it about?
While much of Pam & Tommy jumps around, the pilot keeps us squarely at one point in time: the Summer of 1995, when Rand decided that he would steal their safe in retaliation for being stiffed on a construction job by Tommy. Merely hoping to recoup some of the approximately $20,000 he was owed, he’s happy enough to tool around with the couple’s jewels, money, and guns — at least until he figures out what’s on the VHS tape among his new treasures.
The first three episodes, released on Hulu on Wednesday, trace the build up to the tape going into circulation, bouncing around time as it does so: Pam and Tommy meet, fall in love, and marry (all in four days); Rand tries to figure out who would pay him for the tape; everyone tries to make their next big thing as the whirlwind of the 1990s culture clash swirls around them.
What’s it really about?
Like so much media these days, Pam & Tommy is about the picture behind the picture. Following in the steps of American Crime Story: Impeachment (and, sort of, The People vs. OJ), You’re Wrong About, or Framing Britney Spears, the show takes a maligned, sexualized punchline and pulls back the curtain to show us the humans behind it, for all their folly and foibles.
Anderson and Lee were hounded by paparazzi and a public pining that drove tabloids crazy even before their tape hit the internet. And while Monica Lewinsky claimed her story as the first of anyone “destroyed” by the internet, Pam & Tommy argues that the couples’ sex tape was maybe the proto-internet sex scandal, with news outlets and porn sites alike helping it gain traction. As Lewis notes in her article: “It was a porno that appealed to people who didn’t usually watch pornos, a voyeuristic dive into the guileless intimacy between two tabloid darlings.”
As pop culture continues to relitigate both the blindspots of the public eye and the dawn of internet age, Pam & Tommy is similarly fraught. While Lee has publicly supported the project (even meeting with Stan), Anderson has remained mum, aside from a few quotes about feeling violated all over again by the project, which she (per a “source”) found “very painful [… and] shocking that this series is allowed to happen without her approval.” She joins Britney Spears, who was “embarrassed” by her New York Times documentary, as women who might benefit from such reevaluation, but aren’t hoping to relive one of the most difficult periods of their lives. It’s a strange, thorny angle on a series that ostensibly puts the heart of its series in a woman maligned for having her sex tape shared without her consent.
So, is Pam & Tommy good?
In such (increasingly) crowded airspace, Pam & Tommy struggles to make its case different. Even if you’re not familiar with the contours of Anderson and Lee’s story in particular, we’ve come to know the beats of what stories like this will do. Pam & Tommy can often be a little too open about its aims, with dead-on dialogue directed more towards the 2022 viewer than it does the characters of the 1990s.
So it’s where the show can set itself apart from the other narratives that come to count, like the performances by Lily James and Sebastian Stan. Stan conducts Tommy as a live wire, with a current flowing alternatingly genial and frenzied. As he swings between the extremes they seem to be wholly born of a man who, above all, just endeavors to not give a shit. James’ Pamela is doe-eyed and optimistic, making the hardest parts of the narrative the ones where she is clobbered by reality. Together, they manage to unearth the sweetness of the Anderson-Lee love story, even as it starts to rot. By the time the show reminds you that these two still apparently call one another the “love of my life,” Pam & Tommy has already tried very hard to sell you on why they believe that.
The series is inordinately interested in how these two draw out something neither was able to have, and help them each appreciate themselves more than they were able to. It’s why the second episode has a prolonged montage of the two nakedly adoring each other’s bodies, or why Sebastian Stan as Lee mulls over his love life with his penis (an animatronic voiced by, if you can believe it, a toned-down Jason Mantzoukus). The scene is uncomfortable and a little lurid, considering the wider context of the story and Anderson’s apparent wishes, but it’s also wholesome; both they and their bodies have been so commodified that to be simply themselves is its own relief.
Scenes like this one highlight the constant tension that underscores everything in Pam & Tommy. Siegel and Gillespie’s series manages to artfully make its point and build out what an immense tragedy the entire affair was, even if it whiffs certain moments to make them a little too clean. The show stuffs in commentary on a lot of things without feeling overloaded, more often suffering from mostly feeling single-minded and on-the-nose. (Though episodes hint at the intimate-partner violence present in the Anderson-Lee marriage, the show seems more doggedly determined to frame the sex tape as the root of all problems.) But unlike the stagey, Wikipedia-come-to-life elements of Impeachment, Pam & Tommy has an angle and makes its point well. Rogen’s Rand comes to represent some of the best of that promise (as in the first three episodes, where his cruelty has a purpose) and the worst, when his character starts to feel superfluous to the people who are actually getting fucked over by the whole situation.
But ultimately, Pam & Tommy is part of a parade of content that is so intent on relitigating the harms wrongfully done that we end up with a new genre of show that not only has but invites more ethical scrutiny of media. Too much involvement from a star can often lead to disastrous results. But if you’re setting out to vindicate someone, it’s hard to justify doing that against their wishes.
When and where can you watch Pam & Tommy?
The first three episodes are on Hulu now. New episodes of the eight-episode miniseries will drop every Wednesday.