Pam and Tommy: this wild wild 90s ride fails to pack more than just voyeuristic curiosity ★★★

By Inayah Inam

Hell hath no fury like an unpaid carpenter. The hotly anticipated and vividly nostalgic “Pam and Tommy” chronicles the crazy love story between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and their stolen viral sex tape. Hooked? Well, I certainly was. Debunking the widely held notion that the real Pam and Tommy leaked their infamous private tape, the series adapts the 2014 Rolling Stones article to reveal the true story of how porn, pop culture and the internet collided. 

Oh, it’s oh so 90s… 90s clothes, 90s makeup, 90s music and of course the 90s celebrity sex tape; the show packs a lot of heavy nineties nostalgia. Expect Primal Scream and Third Eye Blind to hit your eardrums and instantly boost your serotonin along with the dazzling transformations of the show’s two main leads. Lily James of Downton Abbey and Cinderella is now Baywatch blonde bombshell Pamela Anderson. Squeaky clean Marvel’s Sebastian Stan is now Motley Crue rockstar Tommy Lee. With razor-sharp eyebrows and over-lined lips, Lily James’s Pamela is ditzy, likeable and cartoonishly striking – a moth to Lee’s chaotic sexual energy and tattooed flame. We can relate and we can hear it as well with the series sensorially getting off to a bang with the moans of lovemaking between Pam and Tommy. They’re rich, hot and in love. We get it.  Stan plays Lee with an air of bravado, a man comfortable in his sexuality walking around in a patterned thong in his palatial manor, owning his “package”.  The second episode “I love you Tommy” throws us into their accelerated meet-cute, group face-licking followed by an ecstasy fuelled party-thon in Mexico ending with a wedding on the beach. 

The show’s creators know that this isn’t enough to keep viewers occupied and certainly the show packs more than just the obvious marketing trope of ‘sex sells’. It literally does in Pam and Tommy’s case, whose tape made $77 million in the first 12 months of its infamous ‘release’. The show makes it clear though – Anderson and Lee never benefited from the tape, particularly Pam, who stumbles on the Baywatch on-set camera crew broadcasting it for both the crew and the entire set. The tape is a ticking time bomb and soon the porn industrial complex (Penthouse magazine and horny men with a VCR anywhere) converge producing a sisyphean struggle for our main protagonist to face. 

As we know, the real Pam and Tommy never got the tape back. They never got fair compensation. Many even believed they leaked it on purpose. The series sets out to debunk this very impression, with the first 3 episodes being truly crime-caper esque, layered with a great 90’s pop-punk ibiza soundtrack (La Bouche ‘Be My Lover’ plays in the club while Pam and Tommy fall in love high on ecstasy). Its high energy and 50 min-ish run time fly by as the story of how the tape came to be stolen is loose, comedic, hammy at times (especially with Sebastian’s Tommy) but still entertaining. 

Unfortunately, it all goes rather downhill after the animatronic penis. Episode 4 onwards deals with the serious ‘adult stuff’ such as their legal and personal efforts to put the genie back in the bottle. Here the series drags on, once Seth Rogan (playing his usual stoner ‘pissed off at the world’ self) and Nick Offerman fall off the earth. Its pace slows, and you can feel it. By the sixth episode, you don’t really care what happens – they kinda suck out the fun with all seriousness. Although the series truly becomes Pam’s series, it’s only made more awkward by the fact that the woman herself eschewed any sense of approval and contact with the show and its producers.  It is undoubtedly the biggest elephant in the room – a series designed to re-examine the sexist lacerations of 90s media, but one that does not benefit from the involvement of the sole woman who experienced it. It is telling that Anderson now has a Netflix deal for a documentary to tell “The Real Story”. Gillespie and James rely on characterological truths here – focusing in the latter half of the series on the violation of privacy and the brutality of men who judged Anderson based on misconceptions and sexism. Episode 6 focuses on Anderson’s deposition where she’s made to watch her own sex tape – an exercise in purposeful humilation and debasement weaponised to rattle her legal defense. 

Pam and Tommy paddles in the waters of salacious trauma-rehashing in the name of a femininst media retrospective. Watching the emotional toll the tape takes on Pam, her pregnancy, marriage and career, Gilepsie laps up the opportunities to demonstrate the insipid nature of sexism with dialogue like “It’s not like they haven’t seen it before” and “It’s hard to say no to a room full of men”. It attempts to command intensity but becomes trite at times. 

Pam and Tommy however, despite its nostalgic setting, feels contemporary and very current. Tapping into the Y2K bimbo-fication aesthetic and dealing with the subject matter of sex tapes; the showrunners feel like they are trying to reclaim and subvert the narrative around sex tapes, progressed by the likes of the Hiltons and Kardashians who have all gone to reclaim their ‘invasions of privacy’ with more reality TV invasions and social media fandoms. But Anderson does not fit neatly into this category. Her lack of interest in the show and its supposed intentions “to do right by her” by reproducing her trauma is fundamentally undermined. Relieving the violation of a very private video, the show trades in illicit titlitation. Pam & Tommy recreates parts of the tape, has actors mimic Anderson and Lee’s sex noises, includes montages of them having cartoonishly vigorous sex and uses prosthetics to imitate their famous anatomies. It’s deliberately meta and uncomfortable to watch but feels mocking, being privy again to their most intimate moments. The sexist entitlement to the tape and Pamela’s violation that the show attempts to decry, manages to repeat that same horror. The show self-destructively undercuts its own critique of cultural voyeurism and laps up to the gonzo-screwball etiquette that unfortunately screams that it was a man who created this. 

Pam and Tommy is not the feminist triumph you think it is. The scenes with solely Lily James are heartbreaking and chilling, and James does a fantastic job beneath the prosthetics and fake teeth to demonstrate the toe-curling gruel of public humiliation. Stan in my opinion is incredibly wasted especially in the latter half of the series where he’s seen less and less.  Stay for the superlatively entertaining rich source material; the talking penis, the robbery and the high-octane clubbing. Don’t however, expect to watch a highly-elevated critique of sexism and the media from showrunners who complacently settled into the bro sex comedy genre all too easily. 

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