Nineties nostalgia is strong. For some, it’s still a halcyon era that gave us chunky jewelry and some of the best in music. But as we’ve seen, discussed, and seen recounted in numerous documentaries about Britney Spears and Janet Jackson there’s a critical reexamination happening of the decade focused on the women used and abused for our entertainment.
“I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie seeks to get at the truth of one the decade’s more infamous pop culture events, the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape, with his Hulu limited series “Pam & Tommy.” Weaved within a story of sex and celebrity is a remarkably emotional tale of love, sadness, double standards, examination of rape culture and gender expectations that we’re still grappling with today.
“Pam & Tommy” starts with Rand Gautier (Seth Rogen), a contractor for whom life has been exceedingly dull. He’s every basic man who has just bounced through life, riddled with debt, and possessing few goals for the future. He also has a strong belief in karma, that for all his hard work he should be rewarded for that somewhere. Upon being fired by Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), Gautier pulls off a less daring, more dumb heist of Lee’s safe, stumbling upon the video tape that would change everyone’s life.
By starting with Gautier there’s an immediate fear that the series will attempt to soften the contractor’s role in all this. As Gautier’s claimed, and the series shows, his issue was with Lee specifically with Anderson as collateral damage. But without belaboring the point, the series illustrates that Gautier was just the most overt person to profit off Anderson’s body. His going so far as to break into a home, steal a safe, and immediately take the tape to a porn producer friend of his (played by Nick Offerman) speaks to the idea that what starts out as a revenge takes on a life of its own. Rogen plays Gautier as a pathetic loser who, with no guile at all, cannot understand why he isn’t successful. With the tape multiplying online it takes Gautier far too long to realize that it’ll never change who he is.
Rogen’s work is fine, but it’s all in service to the more fascinating story which is that of the titled characters. This isn’t just Lily James’ show but it’s also an exploration of Pamela Anderson as a woman, as an actress, and, sadly, as one of numerous individuals in the industry exploited and undermined for her looks. Outside of the physical transformation James undergoes — she captures Anderson’s chunky blonde highlights and penchant for lipliner beautifully — she illustrates a lot of what made Anderson captivating. James never does an impression of Anderson, though she accurately captures Anderson’s squeaky laugh and husky vocal cadences, but more importantly James shows how personable Anderson could be.
It’s not enough to charm men at a press event with a smile. We see her giving of her time, asking assistants on the “Baywatch” set about their kids. For all Anderson’s desire to be taken seriously as an actress, she remains dazzled by Hollywood and sees herself as just a person. Which is why it becomes so upsetting to see Anderson taken down by the events of the tape. James is a simmering kettle throughout the series’ first half. When Anderson deals with a traumatic event once the tape hits the net, James is able to let down that veneer of control and unleash her rage and sadness, culminating with cracking someone’s windshield.
The series understands it can’t focus solely on how Anderson and Lee’s sex tape drastically changed how we look at celebrities, sex, and this weird thing called the internet. It also needs to examine how we talked about women. As numerous flashbacks to Anderson’s past show, her opportunity to become a star on the pages of Playboy magazine would be used against her in a humiliating deposition when her and Lee sued rival nude magazine, Penthouse (it also reveals that in all her work for Playboy she was never adequately compensated).
As Anderson tells Lee throughout the series, the response to the tape isn’t the same for him as it is for her which he only comes to understand towards the end of the series, as the pair’s relationship starts to unravel. At one point, Lee himself even discusses his ability to consent to exposing himself to peoplethat one wishes men were taking place in 1997. The moment certainly doesn’t ring false as Stan’s Lee treats it like a moment of true understanding; he finally sees what his wife is talking about. But consent remains a murky water in 2021, let alone the time period of the series. For Anderson, especially, the series posits that, good actress or not, the tape destroyed any momentum her career would have had without it; even worse, it was used as a proof of assumptions that were already made to begin with.
The same could be said for destroying the Anderson/Lee marriage. It’s easy to forget that much of the fascination with the tape wasn’t just on Anderson’s body — though Gautier certainly marketed it as such — but the heady romance that was the four-year marriage between the couple. The series certainly revels in showing off the intense romance between the pair, with episode 2 going down some wild roads in reenacting the pair’s four-day courtship.
Stan’s Tommy Lee starts out as a self-aggrandizing bully, a relic of ’80s hedonism adrift in the world of the 1990s. The only time the veneer is broken is with Pamela, a woman who compels him to open up. The seeds of volatility are sown from the beginning, though, and while one sees why the pair would eventually break up the audience simultaneously sees why the pair have said they’re the loves of each other’s lives. Gautier’s ex, Erica (Taylor Schilling) describes Lee as a “sensitive caveman” and Stan plays that up, being simultaneously open to beating someone up at the slightest provocation yet being Anderson’s biggest advocate.
The series’ only weakness is when it returns to the proliferation of the tape. Though Gautier starts the series, he’s only returned to a few times as he engages in selling the tape with Offerman’s Miltie and legendary pornographer Butchie Peraino (Andrew Dice Clay). Their storyline tends to focus more on the ’90s elements of the internet transitioning from a strange anomaly to a way to stream content. As Gillespie and crew have said the hope is “Pam & Tommy” will provide justice and redemption for Anderson, so why take the story away from her? Especially to figures like Miltie and Peraino who espouse no sympathy for what they’re doing. Gautier is the lone character attempting to find a way to cleanse his soul, but even then it’s just never as exciting to watch as Pam and Tommy.
“Pam & Tommy” is funny, emotional, and an incisive look at a story many still believe they know. James and Stan are astounding, with the former completely transforming herself physically and utilizing that to show Anderson as the fully realized person she was never allowed to be.
“Pam & Tommy” premieres Wednesday, February 2 on Hulu.
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