Pam & Tommy: The Greatest Love Story Ever Sold
The recent tendency for modern streaming services to re-examine the tabloid scandals of the ’90s goes to a surprising place with Pam & Tommy, a new miniseries debuting February 2 on Hulu. This one is an entertaining examination of the first celebrity sex tape scandal of the Internet era, featuring Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee and Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (played in the show by Sebastian Stan and Lily James.)
The eight-episode miniseries — I’ve seen the first four — is tonally all over the place, but it’s still an entertaining examination of events that took place about 25 years ago, even if it feels even longer.
Pam & Tommy is not part of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story franchise, but it feels along those lines, including the re-examination of the sexism of the era through a modern-day lens. However, there’s one key difference: Pam & Tommy was not produced with the cooperation of either of the main subjects, and there’s a good chance neither would be especially happy with the result.
The mini-series comes from the production outfit of Seth Rogen and his longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg, although the writer and showrunner is Robert D. Siegel, the former editor of The Onion who wrote such movies as The Wrestler and The Founder.
Pam & Tommy begins with the origins of the tape’s leak, circa 1995: Rogen himself plays a carpenter, named Rand Gauthier, working on a renovation at Lee and Anderson’s home. After Lee stiffs him, Rogen gets revenge by breaking in and stealing a safe, which contains the famous sex video. With some help from a pal who’s a low-level pornographer (an against-type Nick Offerman), Rand begins selling the video on the nascent Internet, leading to a huge firestorm, the first of its kind.
While the first episode is mostly about those origins, the second depicts Pam and Tommy’s whirlwind courtship. They meet at a club one night, and seemingly days later, he follows her to Cancun, where she’s taken on a junket to glad-hand Baywatch affiliate owners. By the end of the trip, they’re married. Subsequent episodes deal with the fallout of the tape leaking and, presumably, later on, the ugly crackup of their marriage.
It’s Hulu, so there’s no shortage of nudity, and in a device likely to go down as the thing that gets remembered most about the series, there’s a scene where Lee’s penis seems to develop sentience and speak, in the voice of Jason Mantzoukas. It’s a funny scene, although it’s kind of out of place with the general tone of the rest of the series.
Both lead actors convincingly disappear into their roles, with Stan playing Lee as a heavily tattooed, frequently naked rage case who’s strikingly dumb but occasionally endearing. James, who looks very little like Anderson in real life and has a significantly different screen persona, convincingly plays the Baywatch star as someone seeking something beyond her bombshell image.
Rogen, meanwhile, also plays something of a different character from his usual persona, a blue-collar guy with futurist, new-age interests who’s also something of a sad sack. His girlfriend (Taylor Schilling) even left him for another woman, which was such a mid-’90s trope that was even a plot on Friends (and in Rent.)
The plot goes into some extremely shady corners of Los Angeles, with Andrew Dice Clay — a face that very much fits in with this era and this subject matter — playing a mobbed-up porn middle man. There’s a great scene where Rogen confronts a guy selling a bootleg of the sex tape outside a record store, seemingly not realizing that by stealing something and selling it, he’s not doing anything particularly different. And the producers of Baywatch — as well as the horndog dorks who run the affiliates — aren’t depicted much more sympathetically than the pornographers are.
The mainstream porn world, knowing the tape was stolen and they’d be looking at immediate arrest if they ever tried to sell it, but we’re introduced to Seth Warshavsky (Fred Hechinger), the young online entrepreneur who lacked any of the pesky scruples of the more traditional pornographers. Another notorious real-life figure, the Hollywood private eye/goon Anthony Pellicano, also makes an appearance. Warshavsky ended up fleeing the country, and Pellicano went to jail in a scandal that implicated big Hollywood players; I’d love to see a Wolf of Wall Street-like biopic about either of them.
The worst thing about the show, by far, is its use of music. The show’s early episodes were directed by Craig Gillespie, who made I, Tonya and Cruella, and the show is filled with pop-music needle drops in which the lyrics spell out exactly what’s going on in the plot at the time. Even a cute scene in which the duo is watching The King and I and sing “Getting to Know You” together- this was included in order to show that they are, in fact, getting to know each other.
It should perhaps go without saying that we don’t hear a second of any of Motley Crue’s music; when we see Lee at a drum kit, he’s noodling around rather than playing recognizable songs, and the show takes pains to note that these events happened well after Crue had passed its peak, but before they re-emerged as a nostalgia act. Pam & Tommy joins the 2019 Netflix movie The Dirt in the Motley Crue extended cinematic universe, although that movie was based on perhaps the most debaucherous rock ‘n’ roll book ever written, while Pam & Tommy is merely adapted from a magazine article.
Entertaining as it is, the show can’t quite decide on a tone. It’s not especially funny and can be dramatic, while its forays into sexuality sometimes come with a sour aftertaste. Sticking the landing, on a show like this, is going to be especially important.Watch Pam & Tommy Now Streaming