There are so many potential angles to take within Pam & Tommy, a dramatization of the infamous theft and distribution of Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee’s private honeymoon sex tape.
And yet by getting released within a storm of advertising and promotion, the Disney Plus series, starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan and written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler), seems unable to see the irony of its existence.
There is no doubt that the narrative around celebrity sex tapes has shifted significantly since 1995, when a private intimate video was stolen from Anderson and Lee’s home by Rand Gauthier (played here by Seth Rogan), an electrician and contractor owed over $20,000 from Lee before getting unceremoniously fired.
The salacious desire to see famous people in bed exploded along with that all unifying distribution medium: the internet. In more modern times, thankfully, such leaks are generally derided for the invasion of privacy they are.
Therefore, notwithstanding that there needs to be a damn serious talk about why Pam & Tommy even needs to exist, let’s talk about the positive elements it manages to achieve; namely James and Stan as the 90s power couple stars.
Sebastian Stan, most associated with the stone-faced frosty armed Winter Soldier in the Marvel movies, goes full on as notorious rocker Tommy Lee. Frequently naked but for the grace of thin threads and covered in the requisite accurate tattoos, Stan swaggers and blunders his way through each episode with magnetic aplomb.
Stan’s make-up job may require body stencils and ever-thinning pants, but Lily James’s transformation into Pamela Anderson makes her nigh on unrecognisable. James is the standout star that goes a long way to making Pam & Tommy atone for the exploitative events that bring it to our screens.
In James’ skilled hands, Pam is sensual, but also deeply vulnerable. “It’s different for you! Men will high five you in the street. People will think I’m a slut,” she blasts at Tommy, her determination to carve out a career on her own terms spiralling out of control as the tape becomes more and more widely circulated.
That Lee can’t tell the difference between her choice to model and her private intimacy stolen is something which, sadly, hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years.
Pam & Tommy frequently undercuts itself. The top-notch mimicry of their famous counterparts combined with utterly humanising content (the love between the two is frequently sweet if naïve) is inexplicably paired with the kind of exploitative content that the series wants you to deride in the next breath.
Lily James spends much of the early episodes fully topless, with Pam & Tommy inviting you to ogle before chastising you for doing so. That James wears a high quality prosthetic such that it isn’t her own body you are seeing (not that you’d be able to tell) is perhaps of some comfort to an actor who surely doesn’t need to be so naked for the story to be told.
This tonal dissonance is endemic within Pam & Tommy. Pam’s struggles to be seen as more than her body and Lee frequently failing to understand why the leak is so devastating for her comes hot off the heels from a scene in which Stan has to act around his animatronic talking penis as it tries to argue him out of commitment.
Sure, this scene is based on an extract written by Lee within The Dirt (the Mötley Crüe biography) but it’s such a shame that the personal story behind real people is presented upfront with the same salacious titillation and cheeky boy winks that surely is antithetical to the point.
Similarly, despite the best efforts of Seth Rogan to paint Gauthier as a wronged everyman who took an opportunity in front of him, Pam & Tommy stalls the most in the sections that cover his actions.
At best these 90s nostalgia parts are simply mechanical: an excuse to wang on about the rise of the internet and how it uniquely contributed to the success of selling the tape.
At worst though it smacks of broiling down profiteering from privacy into an acceptable form of revenge, something the presence of an unfailingly smooth Nick Offerman as porn director and co-distributor seeks to legitimise.
Is Pam & Tommy Worth Watching?
Pam & Tommy tries to cover the whole shebang: the rise of the internet; the people behind the theft of the tape, the culture in which the tape was released, and the human cost of its release.
Such an approach is a cover by which to excuse the decision to re-open such wounds in the first place. By opening with Gauthier’s point of view (working on Lee’s house and dealing with his unreasonable mind changing) we are, wrongly, invited to follow his story, something which even the show loses interest in as it progresses.
While the craft of Lily James and Sebastian Stan to breathe heart and soul into those real people behind the lens is top notch stuff from both actors, Pam & Tommy hides behind 90s nostalgia.
Would such a show be made about Jennifer Lawrence or other modern victims of such leaks? Absolutely not.
Pamela Anderson reportedly refused to take calls requesting her help, comment, or provision of input into the show. And yet here, through the internet, her exploitation continues.
Words by Mike Record