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“Pam & Tommy” Well Made Imbalance of Relevance, Exploitation [Review]

There’s a lot to like about Hulu’s latest offering, “Pam & Tommy.” Without getting too deep into the things it excels at, it sports an incredible time capsule of the 90s and pre-internet culture as well as transformative performances from its leads. But everything great here is overshadowed by one undeniable fact: Pamela Anderson had no involvement, and refused to comment on the series.

For any other examination of past events, this probably wouldn’t be as big of hurdle to overcome. But the very nature of what this series is trying to portray simply cannot feel anything other than exploitative. Pam & Tommy hinges on the tumultuous relationship of Pamela Anderson and her husband at the time, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. It also tries to denounce the exploitative nature of a leaked sex tape while committing some of the same crimes it’s trying to speak out against all in the same breath.

Lily James and Sebastian Stan in “Pam & Tommy” BY ERIN SIMKIN/HULU.

While this is a narrative and more broader hurdle that hinders the series from greatness, it isn’t anything that completely derails “Pam & Tommy.” Though it may be at odds with its purpose and execution, it is incredibly well acted and highly enjoyable television. The series actually manages to work. You have to decide for yourself whether or not Anderson’s lack of involvement is enough to not watch. It’s a difficult decision to make, because “Pam & Tommy” really does try to paint Anderson as an intelligent bystander of circumstances rather than the general “mindless bimbo who’s only attribute is her bust size” that has plagued actresses. It is an inescapable brush that culture has painted Anderson with, and an unrecognizable Lily James does everything she can to push the “Baywatch” star beyond that.

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Pam & Tommy” explores the early days of the internet, events that lead to a shotgun wedding, changing times of the mid 90s that affected everyone, and the publicized celebrity sex tape. The series explores the lives of all parties at the time, which includes both Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, Rand Gauthier (who stole and released the tape), and the assorted collection of seedy characters that helped create the World Wide Web we know today.

The series is directed by Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya,” “Cruella“) and written by Robert Siegel (“Turbo,” “The Wrestler“). It is based on the 2014 Rolling Stone article “Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape” by Amanda Chicago Lewis.

There’s a lot to enjoy about “Pam & Tommy,” the first of which is the hilarious irony of Disney owning a show about a celebrity sex tape that features a literal talking penis voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. [Editor’s note: please remember that it was Tommy Lee himself who claimed to hear his penis speak to him in an autobiography.]

When I say graphic, I mean it. The series is not for anyone with any kind of conservative world views regarding sex and nudity. It is unflinching in its depiction of both the real life sexual exploits and sex fueled beginnings of their highly publicized relationship as well as the involvement of the porn industry in the release and monetization of the video. The series also manages to feature one of the most subdued and likable cameo performances from Andrew Dice Clay.

Most enjoyable is the undeniable transformations of Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee and Lily James as Pamela Anderson. You’ve never, ever seen either of them like this, and they completely disappear into their respective roles. James layers her portrayal of Anderson, adding depth and brains to the bust while also continuously pushing back against the objectification of her from just about every man she encounters. She is a woman living with her bad, impulsive decisions, but also demonstrates just how destructive the first revenge porn tape was to her and still is (demonstrated by her refusal to be involved in the project). Without the blessing from Anderson and only being able to recreate her character portrait from what’s provided to her, James is phenomenal in elevating the humanity and intelligence of Anderson, and really drives home how alone and victimized she was in the face of truly exploitative circumstances.

Sebastian Stan, Pam & Tommy (Image: Screencap)

Stan also channels his inner rock god, and while he beautifully captures the aging rock star who lives life without consequences (even when those very actions wreaks immeasurable damage on his life and those around him). At times, it feels more like a parody than an actual portrayal of a real person. This would otherwise be a big knock on his performance, but Stan is so fearless in his immersion that he manages to sell it well, and juxtaposed against James’ portrayal of Anderson, it works. The two leads carry the series from smut recreation to a meaningful examination of exploitation and the damage it caused on its victims.

What doesn’t quite work as well is the casting of Seth Rogen as Rand Gauthier. Rogen isn’t bad, but he’s not capable of matching the range and talent of his co-stars, and even without his signature beard it’s still very much Rogen. The real life Rand also isn’t anything like Rogen when it comes to stature and physique. There seems to be a conscience choice from the writers to frame Rand as a sort of unsung hero who deserved his revenge. Essentially, Rogen is far too likable to convey the sleazy and purposefully harmful actions and demeanor of Rand. We should not be rooting for him, even in the face of Lee’s house diva antics, but Rogen can’t help but make you want to root for him. So rather than exploring everything wrong with the release of the video and the legal loopholes used to justify it after, it kind of begs you to side with Rand and his friends.

Seth Rogen in “Pam and Tommy” Courtesy of Hulu

And therein lies the true problem with “Pam & Tommy.” As much as the series want you to understand how harmful and difficult this changing world of the internet and the first celebrity sex tape had on the couple, it has no problem continually framing Anderson as an object and/or a prize to be won by the men surrounding her at the time. There’s some truth to that obviously, as Lee was notoriously awful to her during their brief stint in lust and infamy, and Rand seized the opportunity to objectify her to the world, and in his pursuit of revenge against Lee ends up hurting Anderson the most. As much as James desperately tries to layer her character and add depth, the writers can’t seem to rid their narrative of its own exploitation. It wants to tell the story and tries to stay true to the source material it’s based on, but without the blessing of Anderson, the expose ends up becoming as harmful as the video it’s trying to condemn.

In spite of all of this, “Pam & Tommy” is still really well made television. It wonderfully creates the chaos of the events, and the does a terrific job in capturing the quickly changing world of the mid 90s across all industries involved. The internet is about to change the world, Anderson is slowly realizing her time in the spotlight is coming to an end, and Lee is wrestling with the fact that the rise of grunge has relegated his relevance to nothing more than a “Behind the Music” re-run. It is also really funny, and the performances sell some of the more absurd antics from everyone. I am not kidding: there is a literal talking dick in the middle of the second episode, and it’s not a quick clip either. It is a full on scene with maybe minutes of back and forth dialogue. It is very funny, but you need to be prepared for the graphic nature of “Pam & Tommy.” This is a series about sex, lies, and celebrity sex videotapes, and it doesn’t hold anything back in its depiction.

Pam & Tommy” may struggle in parts and doesn’t quite reach the conclusion or thematic warnings it is trying to present. It is a bit messy in its composition of retelling, and its constant speaking out of the side of its mouth with the absence Pamela Anderson is really hard to get over. But when it lands, it lands hard. And the performances from Stan and James alone are worth seeing the series all the way through.

And now I know what it looks like to watch The Winter Soldier have a conversation about his sexual exploits with his genitals, that talk back.

I didn’t want this, but now I have it in my mind forever.

The first 3 Episodes of “Pam & Tommy” are now streaming on Hulu, with additional episodes releasing every Wednesday.

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