“One movie shouldn’t kill my whole film career,” Pamela Anderson (Lily James) says with a heartbreaking, quasi-hopeful laugh early in the final episode of Pam & Tommy. But of course, it essentially did. It probably ended her marriage to Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), too, and it certainly made her—as she put it—a walking punchline.
But Pam & Tommy sought to set the record straight, and in that it succeeded. In eight episodes, the Hulu series justified itself after a controversial start, as it was made without the participation (or permission) of Anderson. And yet, it is clear after having watched Pam & Tommy that of course Anderson wouldn’t want to comment on it or be a part of it in any way—when it comes to the infamous sex tape, she cannot win. There is never a “right” choice for her to make.
As a pre-teen when the tape was released, all I knew was third-hand pop culture information; there was something scandalous and tawdry about it beyond it being a sex tape. Later, as PR-approved sex tape “leaks” became common for certain low-tier celebrities, it further obfuscated the truth. The presumption was that Anderson and Lee wanted this exposure, and that they paid no real price for it (and maybe even benefitted). One of the most shocking revelations both to me and those I’ve talked about the series with was simply that Anderson and Lee were married at the time. Further bombshells: it was not made as porn, and it was not shared by the couple.
In that, the series became educational. Pam & Tommy crusaded for Anderson even though she rightfully never wanted to hear about or think about the tape again. But through the miniseries, there has now been a worthwhile reset of our understanding of the events—even if the most intimate parts of them have been fictionalized. The Hulu series frames this as a love story, and never sarcastically. The optimism, hope, and vulnerability that James and Stan (both exceptional) bring to roles they disappear into is what makes the story fully human. Even Lee, who doesn’t come off especially well, is at least painted as a man who desperately loves his wife and who would do anything to make her happy, even if he’s often too caught up in his own pride and, frankly, stupidity to do it right.
As Lacy Baugher Milas wrote in her initial review of the series, the strongest aspect of the miniseries is that very humanity. It gives Anderson pathos and dimension, chastising us as we watch it to consider our own part in the way we blamed or assumed wrongdoing on her part. It also gives a little context and grace to Lee, despite his toxic machismo, in the way his band was losing its relevancy, as well as his helplessness at understanding his wife’s anger over the tape. He even says in the finale that while he does like showing off his dick, this time it wasn’t consensual. I kinda snickered at that line (as even his bandmate says, “there’s worse things in the world than knowing you got a monster hog”), but then I was chastened. I was now putting on Tommy what everyone had put on Pamela: “You are seen so often without your clothes on, why are you mad at it this time?” But of course he was violated as well. The difference was, he was congratulated for his part in it while Pamela was viewed, in her own words, as a slut. Even though she was engaging in intimate relations with her husband.
The show’s unexpectedly tender portrayal of events also extended, rather surprisingly, to Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), who comes to regret and atone in his own way for the robbery that ended up destroying so many lives—including his own. But despite its nuanced storytelling around the bombastic cultural event of the tape itself, Pam & Tommy never lost sight of who it was made for and why: Pamela.
The finale still found space, though, to wrap up one remaining arc that simmered throughout the series, and that was the role of the porn industry regarding distribution. The video was not just a vanguard in terms of celebrity sex tapes, it showed how porn was at the forefront of digital technology (and as noted, even Pamela’s own directorial choices are unique in terms of what she films and how). This tape happened at a moment where everything was changing, and it caught fire in a way that—prior to the internet—it wouldn’t have. Penthouse printed stills and bootleg VHS tapes could be sold in parking lots, but what Gauthier (and later, Fred Hechinger’s Seth Warshavsky) realized was that for both privacy and profit, the internet was the ultimate mode of distribution. You could reach more people, and they never had to leave their home. And ultimately, they didn’t have to wait for the mail, either; it could be streamed directly from a computer.
But again, in addition to this little history lesson of internet porn and the fun had over needle drops and ‘90s references, Pam & Tommy was fully emotionally devastating. It was presented in a way that tricked you into thinking it wasn’t heavy, but by God at the end of almost every episode I wanted to cry. Over wealthy celebrities! Because it broke a huge pop culture story down into small, personal parts. It reminded us of the people behind the headlines and tabloids, and most importantly showed us how suffocating this seemingly endless, violating, humiliating nightmare was for Anderson. The series made us sit in our complacency, to ruminate on the mistakes the cultural coverage made that we bought into without question. No one ever thought about what this did to Anderson, as we see over and over again, which is ultimately vocalized by Tommy to Rand. “Yeah maybe [I’m a bad person],” Tommy says. “But what about Pamela? What did she do to deserve what you’ve done to her? Do you have any idea what you put that warm, kind, sweet woman through? Is she a bad person?”
Even those who have boycotted the series because of Anderson’s lack of consent at having her story told (yet again) must admit that Robert Siegel’s take on Anderson and Lee’s relationship and ensuing sex tape brouhaha has been important in contextualizing the event in a way that we, in 2022, are finally able to see, understand, and reckon with. And more than that, the most shocking thing about it—to quote Taylor Schilling’s Erica—“it’s like… super wholesome.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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