Pam & Tommy Review: A Wild But Sympathetic Portrait Of The Pamela Anderson And Tommy Lee Story

In 1995, a sex tape featuring "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson and her husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, spread like wildfire. Talk of the tape broke out of the pages of tabloids and into the mainstream, and soon, it seemed like the tape was literally everywhere. It was an example of something going viral before any of us started really using that phrase, and seemingly everyone saw it. It even found its way online, which was a concept almost completely unheard of at the time. If you're my age (oh, let's say, somewhere in the 30s and not ask any questions), you likely know all about the existence of the tape. You might have even watched it. But do you know where it came from? Or how it found its way into the public eye?

I confess I didn't. I don't know if I was just too young at the time to pay that much attention, or if the entire origin story of the tape was under-reported. From the get-go, Anderson and Lee made it clear that the tape was stolen. But lots of people had trouble accepting that. One prevailing theory was that since Anderson and Lee were both famous, they leaked the tape to the public themselves for publicity. And if they didn't, so what? It's not like it was hurting anyone.

Of course, that's nonsense. The tape, filmed during the couple's honeymoon, was private and extremely intimate. It was not made for public consumption. It wasn't even made for titillation. There was no consent. Instead, there was a cultural consensus that the public had a right to see the tape, and that celebrities forfeited any right to privacy the minute they made it big. "Pam & Tammy," the addictive new Hulu series about the events surrounding the tape, wants to change that. Most of all, it wants to give Pamela Anderson the respect she never seemed to garner during her career. But it also wants to thrill and entertain, and there's a fine line being walked here as the series attempts to be both respectful and a little scandalous at the exact moment. 

Developed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, and featuring episodes helmed by Craig Gillespie (as well as Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, and Hannah Fidell), "Pam & Tommy" is an often funny and surprisingly sweet trip back to the 1990s. It is a love story, a heist story, a story of fame and excess. It has an almost unusual level of empathy for many of its characters, even the ones who could easily be classified as full-blown scumbags. Take handyman Rand Gauthier, for instance. As played by Rogen, Gauthier is practically the main character here, so much so that the show could've been retitled "Pam & Tommy & Rand." It would be very easy for this story to paint Gauthier as an unredeemable villain. And indeed, he does some reprehensible things here. But the show also attempts to make him a three-dimensional, complex individual. We can't forgive his actions, but we can, perhaps, understand why he did them. 

Something We're Not Supposed to be Seeing

No one would claim that "Pam & Tommy" is 100% accurate, and recent reports have revealed that the real Pamela Anderson had nothing to do with the project, and doesn't seem too happy about its existence. But in the world this show inhabits, the now-infamous sex tape leaked to the public after it was stolen by Rand Gauthier. When we first meet Rand, he's working as a handyman at the mansion currently occupied by the recently-married Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Tommy has hired a whole construction crew to build the ultimate love nest bedroom, and he says that price is not an option. However, when we meet Tommy, as played by Sebastian Stan, he's presented as a volatile, flaky personality. He keeps changing his mind even after Rand and the others have done a lot of hard work. Worse, while he claims that he's willing to spend a fortune to realize his grand bedroom vision, he also keeps avoiding forking over the cash. 

After a particularly harsh series of confrontations, Rand decides to rip Tommy off — and he does, by breaking into the house one night and absconding with an entire safe. After cracking open the safe, Rand finds several valuables — and a videotape. He himself has no method of playing the tape, but he knows someone who does: porn filmmaker Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman). The two men fire up the tape in Miltie's office and are stunned at what they see. Pam and Tommy, having sex. "It's so ... private," Miltie dreamily comments. "It's like we're seeing something we're not supposed to be seeing." And of course, they weren't. No one was, except Pam and Tommy. But that doesn't bother these two men, who quickly realize they can start selling copies of the tape and make serious bank.

Here, "Pam & Tommy" begins jumping around in time, focusing on various characters before and after the tape was released. After the set-up with Rand, the show's main focus shifts to Pamela Anderson, with Lily James stepping into the role of the famous "Baywatch" cast member. James, who is nearly unrecognizable (but not in the rubbery, uncanny Ryan Murphy show sort of way), paints a wholly sympathetic portrait of Anderson as someone who would really like to be taken seriously as an actress. She fights for more lines on "Baywatch," but doesn't get them. She hopes her upcoming movie "Barb Wire" will turn her into a movie star, only to have the movie flop. We also get to see how she became famous via a flashback sequence in which she travels to the Playboy Mansion for a photoshoot, bringing her mother along for the ride. Anderson is shown here as a sex-positive, well-meaning person who can't resist guys with a bad boy image. And just when she's finally made a decision to swear off such men in her life, in strolls Tommy Lee, who sweeps her off her feet.

The romance between Pam and Tommy is presented as both a weird, Hollywood whirlwind and also genuinely romantic; these two celebrities seem like they're made for each other, and they also seem like they're very much in love. At least at first. But as the tape begins to spread, cracks and fissures begin to form. Anderson is mortified, and while Lee isn't entirely thrilled with the idea of the tape getting out, he doesn't see it as that bad of a thing. And that's the point. As Anderson points out, everyone who looks at the tape will see Tommy as a hero for having sex with Pamela Anderson, while Anderson herself will be viewed as a slut. And she's right: That's exactly what happens. There's a genuinely heartbreaking moment where we see Anderson go on the "Tonight Show" and get grilled about the tape by a ghoulish Jay Leno as if this were all for fun. Anderson attempts to stand up for herself, and her invasion of privacy. But when such an angry comment lands with a thud with Leno's audience, she quickly laughs it off. Later, Tommy is perturbed when a stranger in a bar tries to congratulate him on the tape. It's not just the talk of the tape that angers Tommy here — it's the comment that the sex tape is "the best thing he's done in years." This plays into Tommy's fears of becoming irrelevant as grunge sweeps the land and rock acts like Mötley Crüe go by the wayside. 

A Lesson

Gillespie and his co-directors go overboard with style, drenching "Pam & Tommy" in manic excess. Gillespie, who also directed last year's "Cruella," clearly loves needle-drops, and the soundtrack is booming with a constant barrage of pop hits. Gillespie also clearly loves the work of Martin Scorsese, and he's fond of aping a lot of Scorsese's style here (he even uses several songs that are prominent on Scorsese soundtracks, including the song "Stardust" by Billy Ward & His Dominoes, which was used so prominently in "GoodFellas"). All of this overabundant style leads to a scene that will no doubt be buzzed about: a conversation between Tommy and his talking penis, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. "Pam & Tommy" deserves credit for not shying away from showcasing the member in full, talking form, but the length of the scene (no pun intended) kills any momentum. Still, it's not every day you see a talking penis (unless it is; I don't want to make any assumptions about your life, reader). 

Through all of this, "Pam & Tommy" keeps coming back to Rand, who is on top of the world when the tape starts selling, but that doesn't last. People start pirating the tape, and Rand is furious about this. "I was first!" he whines. In his mind, these people are stealing from him — and of course, he fails to see the irony that he himself stole the tape to begin with. This all leads Rand down a dark, destructive path, and perhaps that's what he deserves for what he did, although, again, the show also wants us to have some amount of empathy for him. But not too much. Rand learns a lesson in the end, but he shouldn't have done what he did to begin with. 

Rogen is in top form here, but the show belongs to James and Stan as Pam and Tommy. Make-up and wigs turn them into doppelgangers of the figures they're playing, but the characterizations are in their hands alone. While Tommy can fly off the handle and be prone to doing truly stupid things, one character here points out that he's "strangely likable," and Stan nails that kind of personality, making Tommy both kind of an annoying jerk and the most entertaining person in the room. And James' work as Pam feels like a kind of course correction for decades of assumptions about the real Anderson; like an apology to Anderson for years of misogyny and bad assumptions. 

"Pam & Tommy" may send you to Google to figure out how much of the story here is true and how much has been dramatized, but it's an undeniably entertaining, wild ride that takes care to let Anderson (and by extension Lee) reclaim a narrative surrounding that now-infamous tape. Whatever you think of Anderson and Lee, it's fair to say that they're owed an apology, and this is an excellent step in that direction. 

"Pam & Tommy" premieres on Hulu on February 2, 2022.