2 out of 5 stars

The story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape is one of the most exciting celebrity stories of all time. Teeming with elements of class, gender, and the birth of digital pornography, it’s also remarkably topical for today, where the media’s treatment of female celebrities from decades prior is being discussed and critiqued in popular culture through the more politically conscious lens of the 2020s. The creators of Pam & Tommy clearly understand which dynamics and connotations in this story are most engaging to modern audiences, but sadly fail to trust viewers have the proper takeaway. Instead, the audience is bashed over the head with a feminist diatribe in every scene from the fifth episode on.

There’s also a notable irony in the show’s overt focus on consent while facing massive controversy for subverting Pamela Anderson’s own wishes to have her story retold at all. The claim to this narrative and the names of those involved likely falls under the “right to know” act and, judging by the issues that Anderson faced with securing legal rights to her likeness as told by the series itself, it makes sense that she wouldn’t bother with pursuing legal action against Hulu.

The show centres around the romance between television star Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan). The latter gives an impeccable performance throughout, and James does an excellent job when her material allows for it. Both are driven by insecurity surrounding their public perception even prior to the tape’s release. Pamela’s upset that she’s always reduced to her looks and is deprived of the opportunity to do more emotional and challenging acting work at every turn. Tommy’s a rockstar in the band Mötley Crüe whose fame has washed up since the emergence of grunge. They’re both bursting with nervous energy, with the desire to reinvent, and so it’s obvious why they’re drawn to one another. Pamela channels this manic and evolutionary energy into her career, attempting to model herself after Jane Fonda and her multi-faceted career; while Tommy focuses his desire for reinvention into the perpetual renovation of his home, constantly being rerouted to suit his ever-changing whims.

Lee’s home renovation is the project that becomes the bane of his carpenter Rand’s (Seth Rogen) existence and sets the course of his path towards revenge. In one of Rogen’s best roles to date, Rand is initially star-struck by Tommy and Pamela but, after being financially ruined by the exorbitant Lee, he’s inspired to exact revenge against him. At first, he does so by breaking into his safe, but after finding a sex tape made by Lee and Anderson inside, he decides to capitalise on it. A self-proclaimed technophile, he harnesses the early power of the internet to sell the tape anonymously online. Unfortunately, he runs into trouble early on when bootleg copies of his tape start circulating and his accomplice and business partner, Miltie (Nick Offerman), leaves him in the lurch to clean up the mess.

Pam & Tommy breaks slightly with conventional montage logic, with a tone and rhythm that resembles the light experimentation of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. The camera moves from one person to another, from objective to subjective, lingering a bit too long on a woman because the man across from her’s in love or jumping from tracking Rand’s movement to pushing in on a conversation across the room. The timeline, too, jumps around, rather than sticking to a straightforward chronological narrative. The show kicks off with Rand’s first crime, then winds back two months in order to develop Pam and Tommy’s relationship before the break-in. This erratic logic of time in the series mirrors the logic of the show’s romantic relationships, namely Pamela and Tommy’s strangely fast-moving timeline and the blurred lines of Rand’s pending divorce with a porn star.

When the tape starts to circulate to the masses and get picked up by news outlets and talk show hosts, the series takes on a new and more feminist focus. Pam’s dialogue becomes consumed by condemnations of men and lamentations about her lack of autonomy. While the theme of the story begins to skew more obviously in this direction, to reiterate the consequences of the tape and its fallout on Pam’s life through Pam’s voice directly feels like a faithless choice. By inserting the level-headed hindsight of the present-day cultural response to this story into Pam’s dialogue rather than playing with the idea that she might not be entirely conscious of the ways in which she’s taken advantage of, the audience is deprived of the power of Pam’s rare moments of intimate reflection in the public eye like the Jay Leno interview. The idea this could be a way for Anderson to reclaim her dominance in this story feels like a moot point given that she didn’t want this series made in the first place.

Pam & Tommy was working with a great story, and they even seemed to know what was great about it, but the show ultimately didn’t trust viewers enough to know what was happening and instead felt the need to have Pam’s character become a mouthpiece. This leaves a sour taste, especially given Anderson’s resistance to the show’s existence.

USA | 2022 | 8 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Robert Siegel, D.V DeVincentis, Matthew Bass, Theodore Bressman, Brooke Baker & Sarah Gubbins (based on the book ‘Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Sex Tape’ by Amanda Chicago Lewis.
directors: Craig Gillespie, Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton & Hannah Fidel.
starring: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman & Taylor Schilling.