Developed for television by Robert Siegel
Based on “Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape”
by Amanda Chicago Lewis
Hulu (U.S) / Disney +(International)
You can clearly sense the presence of director Craig Gillespie in the opening episodes of Pam & Tommy; the use of various classic pieces of pop and rock on the soundtrack, a vivid capturing of the tabloid frenzy that came from the titular characters in question, not to mention the presence of Sebastian Stan. The first three episodes of the series feel very much like a companion piece to Gillespie’s acclaimed take on the story of Tonya Harding.
As it goes on, however, and Gillespie as director makes way for Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Hannah Fidell, the salacious, shock value of those first three episodes give way to something more thoughtful and frequently angry.
Those opening episodes, as great as they are at times, do threaten to take the focus away from the titular characters and the sensational transformation Lily James and Sebastian Stan have gone under to become Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee in favour of an exploration of the motivations of Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) and his rationale and embitterment that led him to steal from Lee and Anderson and subsequently release their private home video on to the internet, thus creating a culture of sensationalism that ends up going viral.
Thankfully, when the series hits a home run of episodes in the middle of the season, in which Gillespie is not calling the shots behind the camera, the series focuses more on the impact the release of the tape has on Anderson herself, taking James’ uncanny ability to portray Anderson away from tabloid mimicry and into something more devastating and complex.
It’s a fantastic performance, which really comes into its own in a frequently horrifying and uncomfortable sixth episode where Lee is under deposition as both she and Lee attempt to sue Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione (yes, that is Grease 2’s Maxwell Caulfield) but ends up being put through a ringer of endless slut shaming and criticism from Guccione’s lawyers while flashbacks fill in her years as a Playboy model before going on to worldwide fame as one of the stars of Baywatch.
The production of Baywatch comes under critical scrutiny here, not least the never-ending interest of the producers in having their cameras gaze at Anderson as if she only existed to be ogled at by the straight men in the audience.
The more it goes on, the more Pam & Tommy reveals itself to be a series that is capable of making many of the right decisions. Anytime Rogen is on screen, or the wonderful Nick Offerman for that matter, it loses some sense of identity; the last thing that is interesting about this story is the offenders who make the tape into the unfortunate sensation that it became, but it’s a pivotal part of the story that needs to be there, unfortunately.
What it does get right is its treatment of Anderson as someone who gets caught up in events and a changing world that is beyond her control. She may enjoy her time at Playboy, but the real world beyond the gates of Hugh Hefner’s mansion is shown to be more willing to tear her down or emotionally mistreat her in ways that are frequently cruel. Anderson herself has a reputation for being somewhat vacuous, but James’ portrayal shows her to be someone more than capable of seeing how the world works when something so private about her life is exposed to a salaciously curious population to look at and gaze at, doing so without her permission.
There is a potent contrast going on at times here between the world of mainstream media that its two lead characters are a big part of and the seediness of 90s pornography that is on the periphery of the very same world in a way, one that is about to moulded and changed by the impact the release of the tape will have on the internet itself where sex will eventually not just be sold but become a valuable commodity.
Even if that world feels salacious and is portrayed as such here, the so-called respectability of mainstream television production is every bit as dominated by the male gaze and a need to sell sex and sexuality in the manner of a room full of seedier men filming unsimulated sex scenes.
However, a lot of these pointed criticisms and the critique that forms so much of the series’ philosophy leads to the biggest problem that Pam & Tommy has; for a series that makes so many of the right decisions, treats Anderson so well in terms of how it portrays her and the anger it has for the situation she finds herself in, the makers of the series never got her permission to tell her story.
Initially, it looks as if the series is going to be a light-hearted and funny romp, but like I, Tonya, Pam & Tommy reveals just how easy it is for a large portion of the media and the population to turn against women and label them either as promiscuous or villains when in fact the circumstances are much more complex and usually the result of masculine idiocy when it comes to the how and why.
There is a need for the public and the media to want to place everything into boxes, to apply simplistic labels and to revel in the fallout that comes from scandal and celebrity without ever really considering the consequences that come from a situation that is fodder for sensationalism.
That the series effectively takes Anderson’s story without her permission makes it feel like another part of her life that has been used by the media against her will, which threatens to make the work everyone is putting in here, no matter how good their intentions are, somewhat hypocritical. It’s a very entertaining series, that isn’t in dispute, but you can’t help but roll yourself up in knots about how the series is critiquing something while also calling attention to it in a way that might lead an audience that has no knowledge of these events to discover more about them in a way that might end up hurting everyone involved in it yet again.
Although developed for television by Robert Siegel and marketed heavily on Gillespie’s I, Tonya connections as director, once the series is past the first three episodes, it’s very much driven by female directors which maybe is a big reason why the latter half feels as if has more meat on its bones as opposed to the zanier, albeit enjoyable, first three episodes. The first hour is by far the weak link, spending too much time with Rand and his descent into robbery and vengeance. Once the series finds its way to incorporate its two leads, beginning with their whirlwind romance and then having it turn darker and serious as the impact of the tape becomes more pronounced, the series is frequently at times quite powerful, with a beating heart that is perhaps amongst some of the angriest storytelling in recent television.
It’s just a shame the person it’s trying to defend so eloquently didn’t consent to this part of her life being made public again.