The black and white photo, which features Sebastian Stan and Lily James recreating a salacious pic from real life couple Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson is quite the document.
On an aesthetic level, it’s just satisfying to see two very attractive individuals play-acting as two other very attractive individuals from *checks calendar* three decades ago. The image also pretty neatly captures the story of the Pam and Tommy that we know…or at least that we think we know. In that version of the story, Baywatch actress and Playboy model Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee are two over-the-top public figures whose overt displays of sexuality belong to all of us somehow. It’s no wonder that theirs would be the first celebrity sex tape to leak onto the burgeoning world wide web. Because just look at them. Look at the photo.
Pam & Tommy fully understands the power of its lead characters’ raw sex appeal. The show’s Pam and Tommy are very much the tackily lustful duo from that photo. But it also draws them as fully realized people, for better and worse. People who had every right to privacy regardless of how many times Pam was snapped biting Tommy’s nipple ring.
This eight-episode Hulu series developed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and written by Robert D. Siegel is quite the ride. Despite its title, Pam & Tommy is really a three-hander of a story among lovers Tommy Lee (Stan) and Pamela Anderson (James), and the jilted contractor who stole their sex tape, Rand Gauthier (Rogen).
The series opens in media res with the titular couple newly married and Gauthier tasked with modifying Lee’s bachelor pad into a marital love palace. When Tommy stiffs Rand on payment (in-between loud sessions of, uh… stiffing Pam), the karma-obsessed schlub decides to rob the couple’s safe. In there he finds a VHS tape that will prove to be one of the most surprisingly influential and destructive artifacts of the early internet age.
Like all period pieces (oh God, I feel time’s icy finger on my neck), Pam & Tommy’s first responsibility is to faithfully depict the era in question. The show is successful in that regard. Rogen, Goldberg, Siegel, and director Craig Gillispie all clearly have a fondness for the era that comes through in lovingly crafted Tower Records parking lots and snail-pace AOL download screens. It certainly helps too that the show’s two title characters are some of the most aggressively ‘90s people to ever live.
Stan and James prove to be excellent choices as Tommy and Pam, with their performances going far deeper than the make-up team-assisted physical resemblance. Ultimately Stan is the less sure of the two, with his SoCal bro accent sometimes encroaching on Jesse Pinkman territory. He’s also upstaged by his own penis at one point, which is voiced by the hilarious Jason Mantzoukas. But that’s forgivable as most actors would be upstaged by a Mantzoukas-voiced dong.
Most of Pam & Tommy’s best material is saved for James as Pam, as the show never loses sight of who the primary victim is here. Pam, though garish and mistake-prone, is presented as fundamentally sweet. More importantly, she’s on the same page as the show, immediately understanding the implications of her sex tape leaking better than anyone else involved. While she can’t always properly advocate for herself, she at least understands what’s at stake.
Confronting the air of inevitability can sometimes be a challenge for period pieces that deal with real subjects like this. When viewers have a general idea of what’s to come it can make the dramatic irony at play feel suffocating. Pam & Tommy smartly gives in and leans into this dynamic. There are plenty of foreboding moments in which characters disparage the internet as nerd shit and only Pam and the audience know how wrong they are. When Pam points out that Tommy will be hailed as a stallion for the video while she will be regarded as a slut, she is proven right moments later as if she were a time traveler.
In that regard, James’ Pamela feels like the audience’s confidante through these eight episodes. It’s not that the other characters are poorly drawn. In fact, some are given far more backstory and nuance than one might expect. Rand’s fascination with world religions and his tragic unrequited love affair with his lesbian porn star ex-wife Erica (Taylor Schilling) really fills out a character who would have otherwise just been a mulleted mustache-twirler.
Still, Pam & Tommy will slowly make you hate everyone involved in this saga not named Pam. It’s not that anyone in this tragic tale is truly malevolent (save for a heavily prosthetic-ed Jay Leno, whose fictional depictions are becoming increasingly cartoonish and grotesque…thank God). It’s just that they’re all so gosh darn stupid. When it comes to fragile interplay sex, technology, and Western culture, everyone is in over their head in Pam & Tommy.
In that regard, Pam & Tommy really does capture at least a fraction of the frustration and humiliation Anderson was subjected to throughout this whole experience. In terms of articulating the larger social implications of a ‘90s cultural event that had implications for the modern day, Pam & Tommy doesn’t quite reach the heights of similar fare like The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But Pam & Tommy remains a true American horror story in that it transports viewers into the mind of a real woman enduring real internet-era trauma.
The first three episodes of Pam & Tommy are available to stream on Hulu now.