In the mid-1990s, a sex tape involving glamorous TV star Pamela Anderson and wild man rocker Tommy Lee became the first viral video sensation. Comical and absorbing new Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy charts the bizarre tale of the tape. But in enjoying this intriguing true story bejazzled with ’90s nostalgia, are we just as complicit as those who stole, exploited and consumed that intimate tape in the first place?
The first three episodes of Pam & Tommy stream on Hulu on Feb. 2, with a further installment of the 8-episode series each Wednesday.
Based on an article by Amanda Chicago Lewis published in Rolling Stone in 2014, the miniseries was developed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The series was written by Robert D. Siegel (among others), who wrote The Wrestler and another true story, The Founder, about the early days of McDonald’s. Siegel was also a writer for satirical website The Onion, and this project seems like a smashing together of those things: a semi-satirical story that mines outrageous comedy from actual headlines.
Rogen also stars, and the focus is squarely on him to start with. He plays Rand Gauthier, a well-read but hapless contractor who sports a greasy mullet and is building a sex palace for Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. Marvel star Sebastian Stan plays Lee as a mercurial and unfailingly obnoxious loudmouth, strutting around in only tattoos and a G-string, oblivious to the little people around him until he switches to a petty and vindictive asshole. Being scorned by the rich and famous rock star is one humiliation too many for Rand, who comes up with a harebrained scheme to get even. And in the process, scores something bigger than he ever expected, but it spirals out of control.
Rand’s revenge unexpectedly uncovers a home movie tape from Lee’s honeymoon with his new bride Pamela Anderson, the world’s latest pinup thanks to her scantily clad role in hit TV series Baywatch. She’s a small-town girl from Canada who got her break when the spotlight lit on her (literally) at a Vancouver football game, and she was soon gracing the pages of Playboy. Pam & Tommy introduces her swearing off bad boys, but then Lee struts into her life and a whirlwind romance strikes up.
As anyone who was around in the ’90s will remember, their honeymoon was immortalized in a tape that included a glimpse of the newlyweds consummating the relationship. Rand, a sometime porn star, used his connections to begin selling copies of the tape. But he ended up having even less control over the stolen video than the people in it, and the series charts the twists and turns of this bizarre true story as Rand falls in with debauched porn producers, ruthless mobsters and seamy hucksters.
Pam & Tommy finds the dark humor in moments like Rogen crawling across a lawn with a rug on his back so security cameras think he’s a dog, or depicting Lee’s infamous member flying across the screen in hedonistic slo-mo. It’s also a regular nostalgia-fest, full of ’90s music and fashions from Primal Scream to Nine Inch Nails to La Bouche and 69 Boyz (mixed in with dreamy soul classics, in fun but frenetic fashion).
But these aren’t comedy characters, they’re real people, and the video has devastating emotional consequences. Not least for Pamela Anderson herself, who was on the cusp of leaving TV and launching a movie career at the same time as starting a family. The series explores the role played by the video in the early days of both the internet and Anderson’s career. Only one would take off.
Lily James looks the part as the Baywatch star, but in a series that’s so keen to take Anderson’s side, she’s often frustratingly sidelined. Anderson is shown making smart business decisions and possessing a shrewd understanding of show business, and is portrayed as a creature of contradictions — something both the real and fictional Pamela Anderson embrace — but the insights into her personality feel somewhat superficial.
James (as Anderson) keeps having to explain to her husband, her lawyers and the viewer why this situation is such a disaster for her — because she’s a woman, and is judged by different standards than men. It isn’t meant to be subtle, but these speeches deliver the moral of the story straight down the camera: Her speeches about the double standards applied to women in the public eye may be thought-provoking, but the speechiness makes her feel less like a real person and dangerously close to being a mouthpiece for the show’s Big Important Themes.
Among the other leads, Rogen is extremely watchable as the man who stole the tape, once again playing a perennial loser who can’t seem to catch a break. It’s easy to relate to his pining after his failed marriage and to his desperation as everyone plays him for a chump. And Stan invests wild man Tommy Lee with a surprising amount of humanity, as under the tattoos he’s shown to be a genuinely supportive husband.
Ultimately the show doesn’t address the big problem. It’s a story about how Anderson and Lee were exploited without their consent. The series effectively and humanely lays out the consequences of that exploitation — but the couple weren’t involved with this new show, either; the exploitation continues beyond their control.
This is the latest in a line of TV shows highlighting how women have been pilloried in history, such as Impeachment: American Crime Story or A Very British Scandal. It’s an important subject to highlight, but like all real-life drama or true-crime nonfiction, it could be seen as rehashing traumatic events for salacious entertainment.
Those shows, and the surprisingly sensitive Pam & Tommy in particular, offer belated vindication and even apology to women like Pamela Anderson who were simultaneously leered at, judged and ultimately ruined. But ironically, if Pam & Tommy’s message gets through to you, you might end up wishing you hadn’t watched it.