Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and happily ever after? Can they all work together? Hulu’s latest mini-series Pam & Tommy (2022) shows that, even for world-wide superstars like Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, it’s almost impossible to have it all.
Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan) are some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Anderson constantly graces Playboy magazine covers in print and Baywatch slo-mo runs on screen. Tommy Lee thunders away on drums in multi-platinum records for the hugely popular hair metal band Mötley Crüe. When they find their hearts are kickstarted for each other on a drug-frenzied trip through Mexico, they soon tie the knot, destined for a life of eternal, feelgood marital bliss.
As with any new couple, Pam and Tommy don’t have much regard for others around them. Especially the revolving door of contractors constructing their adult playground of a house. Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) not only finds himself abruptly fired by Tommy Lee but also at the business end of Lee’s shotgun when he returns to retrieve his tools. Sick of a life of constantly being kicked around, Rand swears vengeance on Tommy Lee and manifests said vengeance by robbing Lee’s safe late one night.
As people flush with seemingly endless supplies of money are wont to do, the Lees have all the latest toys the ’90s can offer–exotic weapons, priceless jewelry, and a handheld video camera. After the robbery, Rand suddenly possesses (and pawns) some of these toys. But one particular morsel from the safe ends up rocking the world in more ways than one: Pam and Tommy’s homemade sex tape. After Rand tries to capitalize and sell the sex tape, everyone involved learns that privacy is a bygone relic left behind in the pre-internet age.
Pam & Tommy is based on a Rolling Stone article that primarily focuses on Rand Gauthier’s involvement in the scandal. And where the article makes room for the theories that Anderson and Lee were involved in the sex tape’s leak, Pam & Tommy strongly depicts a couple that fought for every scrap of privacy and dignity they could maintain.
When I heard rumblings of a mini-series focused on the sex tape scandal, I was mildly intrigued. I would be lying if I said that I, a red-blooded American male growing up through the ’90s and the aughts, was not aware of Pamela Anderson. But more so, being a drummer and annoyingly obsessed with music before my time, I was drawn by the involvement of rock star Tommy Lee. When Hulu officially released the first three episodes on February 2 of this year, I walked in with curiosity. I quickly gave in to my wild side and embraced the series as an avid fan.
Pam & Tommy is certainly an emotional roller coaster. The first few episodes do a lot of heavy lifting building emotional sympathy for the players involved. As with the Rolling Stone article, the first episode focuses primarily on Rand and his plight. The series seesaws between Rand and the Lees but never once establishes clear protagonists and antagonists, per se. Rand has valid reasons for feeling wronged, especially by Tommy Lee. The Lees, especially Pamela, have valid reasons for feeling violated by Rand. As the series continues, the sex tape erodes the lives of both of our focal points, and it’s tragic to watch it unfold.
Pam & Tommy serves as a cautionary tale in so, so many ways. The obvious example comes from Rand’s vengeful quest and greed. Instead of being fixed for life, he finds himself in the unenviable position as a fixer for the mobster who financed his seedy endeavor. Pam and Tommy find that their carefree lifestyle is not as inconsequentially romantic as they hoped.
While I say there’s no clear antagonist or protagonist, the series very much sets Pamela Anderson up as the most sympathetic character, and rightly so. Some of her lines, especially in the last two episodes, broke me. In an appearance on Jay Leno’s show, we see Pam’s imagined response of absolute devastation over the sex tape before we see her actual curtly coy response in the interview. When Pam and Tommy learn a judge dismisses their lawsuit against Penthouse‘s possession of the tape, her response is haunting: “I don’t have any rights. Because I have spent my public life in a bathing suit. Because I have the nerve to pose for Playboy. They can’t actually say sluts, and that’s what this ruling is saying I am, in case you’re unclear.”
The mini-series also reminds the viewer that celebrities–even the wealthiest and most party-prone among them–are still people at their core. The sex tape negatively affected Lee and Anderson–and the show clearly portrays the extent of the blow that Anderson’s career suffered. And while the average person likes to sneer at and deride celebrities in the cushion of their wealth (I count myself as the gravest of sinners in this regard), Pam & Tommy is a stark reminder that we owe them their privacy and mental well-being. And that success is incredibly fleeting.
Just as Pam & Tommy serves as a cautionary tale, potential viewers should enter with caution. Given the obviously lurid subject of the show, there’s a fair amount of nudity–including a scene (that I admittedly found hysterical) with a talking–er–“drum stick” of Tommy Lee’s (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas). Additionally, while the show intends to show the human toll of exploiting the private lives of entertainers, you wonder how many people sought out the actual tape after watching the show motivated by whatever level of curiosity they have (to my wife who is reading this, I have never and will never). Pamela Anderson–by far the most sympathetic character in the show–has gone so far as to say she won’t even watch the trailer of the show because the tape is still so scarring. Unlike Tommy Lee, who provided his insight and more-or-less blessing on the series.
Another shortcoming of the show is that I thought it could have a gone little bit further in its critical eye on the exploitative nature of the porn industry. It hammered the importance of consent, but it took a middle-of-the-road route when it comes to how dehumanizing porn is for women and damaging it is for men (a better example of this can be found in the movie Don Jon). While it didn’t go too heavy-handed, we do get glimpses of this in interactions between Rand (a former pornstar himself) and his pornstar ex-girlfriend Erica Boyer (Taylor Schilling). When describing her viewing of the sex tape, Boyer can’t help but gush about the sweet romance between two married people innocently in love and why that makes the sex tape different than other porn. And when Rand is apologizing to her for his misdeeds toward her and others, he mumbles, “Oh man. I feel terrible for women. You have to deal with us.”
Ultimately, Pam & Tommy far exceeded my expectations, presenting a sweet love story that burned out almost as quickly as it caught fire due to a storm of greed, revenge, and the first video that broke the internet. Sebastian Stan and Lily James uncannily portrayed the titular characters, and Seth Rogen effectively counterbalanced as their faulty yet sympathetic foil. While many might be drawn in by the scandalous nature of the show, my hope is that we all learn the valuable lesson of privacy and dignity for all–even our entertainers.
Pam & Tommy
Pam and Tommy's Sweet, Tragic Relationship10.0/10
A Human Story About Humans Being Human10.0/10
The Talking "Drum Stick"10.0/10
Redemption for Pamela Anderson10.0/10
Exposing the Porn Industry for What It Is9.0/10
- Starring: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling
- Creator: Robert Siegel
- Directors: Craig Gillespie, Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, Hannah Fidell
- Writers: Amanda Chicago Lewis, Robert Siegel
- Producers: D.V. DeVincentis, Megan Ellison, Dave Franco, Evan Goldberg, Ali Krug, Mike Manning, Sue Naegle, Ron Rapiel, Seth Rogen, Michael L. Rosenfeld, Dylan Sellers, Robert Siegel
- Music: Matthew Margeson
- Cinematography: Paula Huidobro
- Streaming: Hulu