Midway through the eight-episode Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy, a reporter approaches her editor with a pitch. She wants to cover the leak of the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape; she has a hunch that it’s a scandal that could shape not just Hollywood, but culture in general. Her sceptical editor turns her down. But there are so many angles to it, the reporter says; technology, celebrity, privacy — no dice. It’s not something that an esteemed publication like the Los Angeles Times should cover, the short-sighted editor reasons.
But not only was the scandal covered, it has, over the years, come to define an entire decade—it was a story that signalled the arrival of the internet, and in many ways, predicted the toxicity that the web would eventually foster. But Pam & Tommy, the show, is utterly unconcerned about all that. It isn’t even self-aware enough to pay attention to what that LA Times reporter was saying, which is summed up by the show’s handling of her story arc. Pam & Tommy, ultimately, turns into exactly the kind of thing that it is critiquing—it is, and make no mistake about it, another attempt to exploit one woman’s suffering.
What should have been a launchpad to dive into sincere discussions about gender politics and voyeurism treats both those notions like an afterthought. And because series creator Robert Siegel trains his focus on the salaciousness of it all, he is forced to contrive scenes in which characters verbally explain esoteric concepts such as consent to others.
The first three episodes—directed by Craig Gillespie—are probably the worst. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that the filmmaker has made massively egregious errors in judgement. Similar criticisms can be made about his films I, Tonya and Cruella—both of which came dangerously close to glorifying reprehensible behaviour.
In Pam & Tommy, the vessel for Gillespie’s tone-deaf reading of this story is a man named Rand Gauthier (played by exec producer Seth Rogen, who I thought had a good head on his shoulders). He’s the guy who was responsible for stealing the tape and selling it online, setting into motion a feeding frenzy that would eventually earn Vivid Entertainment more money than the lifetime box office haul of 3 Idiots.
Bafflingly, the show dedicates an entire episode—the pilot, no less—to justifying Rand’s actions. He was working as a carpenter at Tommy Lee’s house, when he was fired without payment for no apparent reason, after putting in several weeks of hard work. Thoroughly peeved, Rand decides to get back at Tommy by stealing his safe. Rand, and by extension the show, defends this behaviour by suggesting that he’s some sort of a karma-obsessed amateur theologian who has a particular fondness for the Mahabharata.
Rand thinks of himself as a decent person who just wants to teach Tommy a lesson in humility. The show takes the angle that he’s just a wronged common man who stood up to someone infinitely more privileged than himself. How odd, isn’t it? We are, after all, talking about a guy who invaded a couple’s privacy, systematically worked to profit off their pain, and potentially aided in the disintegration of their marriage. Oh, and by the way, he didn’t even have a grudge against Pamela; she essentially became the collateral damage in his war against Tommy, and bore the brunt of the scrutiny. But Gillespie directs those first three episodes like a fun caper about an internet pioneer, and not as a sinister drama about a creepy criminal.
Case in point, when Pam and Tommy first discover that the tape is being sold online, they resolve to investigate the matter themselves. But because they barely have any understanding of the internet, they must first get their hands on a computer compatible with it. And so, the show decides that the best way to depict their paranoia is through a comedic scene in which they wear corny disguises and go to a library looking for this thing called ‘the web’.
More than a domestic drama about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, the show almost comes across as a redemption tale about the thieving Rand Gauthier.
And it never commits to one tone. The later episodes have an almost soapy vibe, with Pamela going all Gangubai on the men who’ve wronged her. Miraculously for a mess of this magnitude, Sebastian Stan and Lily James are terrific, routinely capturing the truth of these characters from behind thick prosthetics and under the deafening din of luridly loud storytelling. James, in particular, is brilliant as Pamela, a woman whose life (and possibly career) was wrenched away so cruelly from her. She’s unrecognisable not only because of the makeup—which is very good—but mostly because of her eerily effective performance, which would have worked even without all the cosmetic trickery.
It’s so unfortunate that all that hard work went in service of a show that repeatedly dishonours its subject by first selling its soul, and then attempting to sell the most sleazy aspects of this story. In a way, Pam & Tommy does to James what Rand Gauthier did to Pam.
Pam & Tommy
Creator – Robert Siegel
Cast – Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman
Rating – 2/5