Early on, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s relationship was the definition of a whirlwind love story. In 1995, the volatile Mötley Crüe drummer met and married the Baywatch star after one weekend in Cancún. From the moment they landed back in Los Angeles, they were hounded by the paparazzi—or, as Lee would later describe it in the Mötley Crüe autobiography, The Dirt, a “lynch mob.” A year later, they had a son, the first major celebrity sex tape, and a lot of lawyers. But this is not the story Hulu’s new limited series Pam & Tommy chooses to tell.
Based on the 2014 Rolling Stone article by Amanda Chicago Lewis, Pam & Tommy is primarily concerned with carpenter Rand Gauthier, the disgruntled contractor who stole the tape. Played by Seth Rogen, who also produced the series, Rand is depicted as a down-on-his-luck schmuck who stumbled into stealing the sex tape and decided to sell it online to get back at Lee, who fired him without payment. This all goes down in the first episode of the series exactly according to the Rolling Stone article, and the rest of the eight episodes explore the fallout, balancing Rand’s story with that of Pam (Lily James) and Tommy (Sebastian Stan).
If there’s one thing that Pam & Tommy gets right, it’s ’90s nostalgia. Everything from the costumes to the set design feels authentic and, most importantly, lived in. The show also wisely chooses to deploy past Top 20 hits in key moments instead of oversaturating the episodes with a ’90s soundtrack. It’s enough to set the audience specifically in mid-’90s without being distracting. Rogen’s ability to rock a mullet definitely helps, as do the surprisingly grounded performances from Stan and James. They’re perfectly matched, both approaching their roles with unbridled enthusiasm. Stan walks a fine line, having to make Tommy both extremely menacing (the real Lee was known for starting fights and was eventually arrested for domestic abuse toward Anderson in 1998) and irresistibly charming. Meanwhile, James is tasked with somehow acting through layer upon layer of spray tan, a chest plate, and heavy makeup. With all the fake tattoos and outrageous outfits, it would be easy for Pam and Tommy to come off as cartoonish, but Stan and James are able to make these two larger-than-life personalities almost relatable. And they make Pam and Tommy’s love story feel, at times, like the greatest romance the world has ever seen.
Despite the ’90s throwbacks and the great performances, Pam & Tommy isn’t exactly enjoyable to watch. Part of that is by design, especially further into the series when the sexism Anderson faced after the release of the tape comes to the forefront. Episode six, “Pamela In Wonderland,” is particularly devastating: In the Hannah Fidell-directed episode, Pamela is forced to endure a humiliating deposition about her sex life and career as a model, and James’ ability to show Pam’s physical pain at having to endure unrelenting questions about her sex life is as heartbreaking as it is excruciating. It’s easily the best episode of the series because of James’ performance and Fidell’s direction, which allows the misogyny of the (all male) lawyers to speak for itself.
Unfortunately, these moments of raw honesty are too few and far between. For whatever reason, Pam & Tommy chooses instead to focus more on Rand, fabricating an entire redemption arc for him, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear to have ever expressed any real remorse for stealing and releasing the tape. In contrast, the show completely changes Anderson’s and Lee’s personal lives, compressing the timeline of the births of their children. In the series, it looks like Pamela gives birth to their first son right after the two finally signed over the rights to the tape. In real life, however, Anderson and Lee welcomed their first son in June of 1996—as the underground sales of the tape began to spread—and she was actually pregnant with her second when she signed the 1997 release.
Pam & Tommy is at its best when it confronts the harsh realities of the tape, which was much more than just a pivotal moment in pop-culture history. Yes, it inadvertently kicked off the era of the celebrity sex tape, but it also marked a major shift in how people thought about celebrities and privacy. The tape’s trajectory from a personal item so valuable it was in a safe to a video sold in stores worldwide is a story about sexism, power, and the patriarchal way we view women’s bodies and sexuality. But, thanks in part to the decision to split time between Pamela and Tommy and Rand, Pam & Tommy fails to really dig into any of these themes, nor does it explore the power dynamics of Hollywood in any meaningful way.
Other than a blanket acknowledgement of sexism in Hollywood and U.S. media, Pam & Tommy does little to actually examine the power structures that allowed the tape to become what it is. And it’s not entirely clear how much the show’s writers and directors even thought about it themselves. This is evident in the use of supporting characters of color to help tell the story. The journalist who first legitimizes Pam and Tommy’s sex tape as news in The Los Angeles Times, for example, is a character named Alicia Krentz. Played by Irene Choi, Krentz does not seem to have existed (at the very least, she could not be found via Google search), and the decision to make her an Asian woman feels significant.
In Jay Leno’s Tonight Show writers’ room, which is made up of only a handful of men, including one Black man and one Asian man—both unnamed—who, coincidentally, pitch the Pam and Tommy tape jokes to Leno. It’s also unclear if these men have real-life counterparts or are composites, but if they didn’t, the casting reflects a lack of consideration of the power dynamics at play. What does it mean that an Asian American woman and two non-white men are, in the show, responsible for publicizing the tape? What are their levels of complicity? These are questions Pam & Tommy isn’t interested in answering.
The show’s creative team also appears uninterested in questioning its own complicity in perpetuating the popularity of the tape. This is clear from the first episode, which opens with a recreated clip of Anderson on The Tonight Show, as Leno grossly jokes about the tape, and then proceeds to be all about Rand. Centering Rogen’s character undermines any attempt, intentional or otherwise, to critique Hollywood sexism. And, by not involving Anderson in the production, showrunner Robert Siegel and his team miss an opportunity to give her agency in her own narrative.
In the end, it’s hard to watch Pam & Tommy and not feel that Anderson is once again being exploited by the patriarchal Hollywood machine. No matter how much Pam & Tommy wants viewers to empathize with Pamela or how much care James put into her performance, it doesn’t change the fact that the series was made without Anderson’s consent. Her intimate life is, once again, being packaged and sold to profit everyone but herself. If only Pam & Tommy had the bravery to look at its own complicity, maybe it could have succeeded without Anderson’s involvement. But as it stands, the show is just another violation in a long list of violations.