With the tagline “The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold,” you could kinda think that the new Hulu series Pam & Tommy, about model/TV star Pamela Anderson and rocker Tommy Lee, would focus on their love story, right? But no. More appropriate would be “The Greatest Precious Private Moments Ever Stolen, and The Sad Repercussions, and How This Changed the Internet and Celebrity Access, and What We’ve Learned Since About Consent and Body Autonomy.” My subtitle isn’t as good, I admit, but it is more accurate.
The series starts early in the marriage between Pam (Lily James) and Tommy (Sebastian Stan), as Tommy’s Malibu mansion is being remodeled to accommodate all the sex he wants to have with his new hot wife. Seth Rogen stars as Rand Gauthier, a hapless carpenter who is unfortunate enough to land in Tommy’s crosshairs, get unceremoniously fired, and then never paid. Gauthier fancies himself a karmic wizard and good person who feels righteous in his path that eventually leads to the theft and sale of the home video recording of Pam and Tommy’s honeymoon without their consent.
The series doesn’t spare any detail when showing the logistics of marketing stolen X-rated material in the days before the internet. Remember why they are called “sex tapes” in the first place—modems were too slow to put porn on the internet back then. These were actual tapes that people had to acquire, and then take home to play on their VCRs. It took awhile for Pam and Tommy’s sex tape to enter the cultural zeitgeist. It also takes a while for this series to get to the story of the couple at its heart.
Once the focus begins to shift from Rand (the disgruntled carpenter) and onto Pam and Tommy (the big-haired '90s power couple), the series takes off. Sebastian Stan as Tommy is one part Chris Kattan from A Night at the Roxbury, one part Johnny Depp in the early Pirates movies, and one part, like, radioactive waste on fire during a hurricane. He is abhorrent, sleazy, and utterly watchable as a shirtless dirtbag millionaire.
Pam, however, doesn’t get as much love. Lily James’s Anderson is little more than a breathy, skinny-eyebrowed plot device used to push forward the stories of Tommy and Rand. Hell, Tommy Lee’s dick (voiced by Jason Matzoukas) has more memorable lines in early episodes. Pam was a mega-hot Baywatch and Playboy star at the height of her career during this time; here, she comes across as too sweet, too passive... like everything just happens to her.
That's what I saw in episodes one through four. But as I watched episodes five through eight... things changed.
As the sex tape spread, and the couple’s infamy grew, so too does Pam’s presence in the series. The tone changes from “Haha, these trashy celebrities are over-exposed” to “Pamela Anderson Lee was a victim of a misogynistic Hollywood tabloid culture of exploitation of women.” What we had seen from Tommy’s point of view seemed like another rock star escapade—dangerous, exploitative, fun. But as Pam’s story comes to the front, the whole thing is much less fun. She’s not the arm candy of a notorious bad boy rocker; she is a victim of a crime who is publicly humiliated for it in a way that only a woman would be, especially a woman who had become famous in the first place largely because of her body.
The imbalance between how Tommy and Pamela’s experienced the sex tape fallout, both publicly and within their marriage, is deeply uncomfortable to watch—not because the series handles it poorly, but because it’s sad. It’s exploitative. Pamela Anderson seems like an inherently kind person with a big heart; Tommy, despite his (many) faults, seems to worship her. They didn’t deserve any of this! They were made a punchline 20 years ago and now we’re still making them entertain us?! Am… I… part of the problem? Because I saw the slick advertising for this series and rolled up with my popcorn to chomp up human people’s private stories? Ew.
Look, I’m not saying that just because the show might feel icky doesn’t mean it’s not well-done or worth watching—it is, and it is. James, Stan, Rogen, along with supporting stars Nick Offerman and Taylor Schilling, absolutely deliver. It’s just that what we ordered in the first place is a little bit messed up.
Pam & Tommy debuts February 2 on Hulu.