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'Pam & Tommy' are sympathetic figures in an infamous culture war

Tommy (Sebastian Stan) and Pam (Lily James) in <em>Pam & Tommy.</em>
Erin Simkin
/
Hulu
Tommy (Sebastian Stan) and Pam (Lily James) in Pam & Tommy.

The word chaotic can make for such a delicious descriptor. It's simple yet vivid, a word you conjure up to invoke a sense of disarray, instability, and mess. It's a state of discombobulation and whirlwind turbulence. It can feel especially apt to apply it to celebrity happenings as observed by the rest of us from the outside – particularly when it comes to their over-the-top romances.

And so, the best way to describe the meet-cute of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, as depicted in Hulu's enjoyable eight-part miniseries Pam & Tommy, is chaotic. It's 1995, and Pam (an unrecognizable Lily James) is out at an L.A. nightclub with her girlfriends, declaring she's "done with bad boys" as Crystal Waters' "100% Pure Love" pours through the speakers. In a celebratory mood, she decides to buy a round of shots for the entire club, which includes, unbeknownst to her, Mötley Crüe drummer and bad boy émérite Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), someone she's never met.

He removes the dividing red velvet VIP rope, plops over next to her on the couch, and proceeds to give the side of her face a big, long, liiiick.

When the cocktail waitress tells Tommy the drink is courtesy of Pam Anderson, he mistakenly accepts it as a mating call intended specifically for him, and struts over to Pam and her friends as if he were the metal rock version of the vapid, preening Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Without saying a word, they share intense lusty stares; then he removes the dividing red velvet VIP rope, plops over next to her on the couch, and proceeds to give the side of her face a big, long, liiiick.

Pam then turns to her friend, and licks her face, who then turns to the friend next to her, and licks her face and ... next thing you know, Pam and Tommy are on the dance floor and can't keep their hands off each other.

Like I said: CHAOTIC. Also, thoroughly entertaining.

Pam & Tommy is the latest entry in the genre of revisiting America's biggest 20th century cultural scandals, and it revels in the chaos of the couple's relationship and dueling celebrity personalities. Written by Robert D. Siegel and based on a 2014 Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis, the series chronicles the infamous leak of Anderson and Lee's intimate home video, perhaps the first viral celebrity sex tape of its notoriety. (It began making the rounds on the bootleg VHS circuit in 1995, pre-Paris Hilton and Rick Salomon, pre-Kim Kardashian and Ray J.) This old story is ripe for dramatization, because not only does it involve prime storytelling elements – a disgruntled employee, the mob, the porn industry – but it also provides an opportunity to benefit from hindsight, turning what was once the late-night punchline du jour into a pointed critique of society's deeply ingrained misogyny. In attempting this, Pam & Tommy mostly succeeds.

The first episode sets up the impetus for the tape's leak: Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), a contractor remodeling Tommy and Pam's sprawling mansion, is pushed to the edge by Tommy's outrageous demands. The rock star, who frequently proclaims "money is no object," also hasn't paid Rand and his partner for their supplies and labor, and owes them tens of thousands of dollars. When they confront Tommy about payment, they're fired. And when Rand returns later to pick up the tool box he left behind, Tommy refuses to return it to him, escorting him off the premises at gunpoint. Rand, humiliated and pissed (a lethal combination), plots out his revenge.

Miltie (Nick Offerman) and Rand (Seth Rogen).
Kelsey McNeal / Hulu
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Hulu
Miltie (Nick Offerman) and Rand (Seth Rogen).

Rand manages to steal Tommy's safe from his garage, and stumbles upon the tape that will upend his life and its creators' forever. He partners up with the pornographer known as Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman, smarmy as ever) and they set up an operation where they advertise the video on the world wide web, and sell copies of the VHS to horny voyeurs all across the country.

Pam & Tommy zig-zags through the perspectives of Rand and the violated couple, amidst a swirl of stylish editing, needle drops, and whimsical narrative choices. In one scene, Tommy has a conversation with his own, er, appendage, which is anthropomorphized and voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, because, why not? Rogen is a snug fit for Rand, an unremarkable guy who clings to an intense belief in karma until his encounters with the maniacal rock star make him feel otherwise. ("I am karma, and I'm a b----," he proclaims the moment he decides to turn from sympathetic beleaguered dude to villain.) The actor doesn't usually play characters to actively root against – and in 2022, we should all be rooting against guys like Rand – but he does have a knack for playing average joes who find themselves in over their heads under extremely heightened circumstances, and it works.

But the story really belongs to Pam, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tommy. As the ill-fated pair, James and Stan manage to find groundedness alongside their characters' exaggerated public personas as flighty blonde sex symbol and dimwitted, erratic rock star. Sure, their whirlwind courtship is depicted as anyone rational from the outside looking in probably sees it: silly and doomed from the jump. (They were married just four days after that initial meet-chaotic.) Yet Pam & Tommy presents their relationship as emerging from a genuine place of mutual sexual and intellectual attraction, and Tommy frequently plays the role of over-the-top cheerleader as his wife attempts to expand her career beyond Baywatch. (Though there's a bit of an A Star Is Born trajectory going on here. As unlucky strangers he encounters learn, be careful what you say to him about his own pursuits; Mötley Crüe hasn't had a hit in years and it's a sore spot for Tommy.)

As enjoyable as much of Pam & Tommy is, and as noble as its aims may be in presenting Anderson as the tragic pawn in this gross game of competing fragile male egos, I can't help but wonder if the series unintentionally replicates aspects of that original violation of privacy.

As is often the case, though, Tommy threatens to derail her career with his penchant for getting into bar brawls. And once the tape breaks into the national spotlight, however, the ties that bind them begin to fray. Pam is deeply embarrassed and horrified as late-night hosts and random strangers reduce her to little more than a bimbo. Meanwhile, Tommy is seen as the hero who gets to have sex with the world's biggest sex symbol and envied for his apparent well-endowment.

James is excellent as the Baywatch star, channeling her as at once extremely vulnerable and exceptionally astute. Pam is consistently pushing back against the sexism and dismissiveness she faces from everyone in her life, Tommy included. "This is worse for me," she says to him about the tape. "It's not because of my 'big career,' it's because I'm a woman."

And yet as enjoyable as much of Pam & Tommy is, and as noble as its aims may be in presenting Anderson as the tragic pawn in this gross game of competing fragile male egos, I can't help but wonder if the series unintentionally replicates aspects of that original violation of privacy. While the re-enacted video is shown in bits and pieces, often only in audio form (the panting, Pam's giggling, the intimate banter), it still appears a lot throughout the series, as various characters view it on their TVs and desktops.

Perhaps, as the series sets out to prove, the truth is more complicated than soundbites and punchlines could ever muster.

Unlike last fall's American Crime Story: Impeachment, which credited Monica Lewinsky as an executive producer, Anderson appears to have had no involvement with Pam & Tommy, perhaps because she'd prefer not to revisit this traumatic period from her past. In an interview, James said she tried to reach out to Anderson while preparing for the role, but was unsuccessful. And curiously, the show barely touches Lee's reportedly abusive behavior toward Anderson during their marriage, and not until the very end of the final episode, in the closing titles.

Perhaps, as the series sets out to prove, the truth is more complicated than soundbites and punchlines could ever muster. It can be such that Pam & Tommy joins the ranks of Impeachment, Framing Britney Spears, and Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson in effectively critiquing society's treatment of women in some ways, while still falling short in others.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.