When I wrote my first review of Pam & Tommy the rest of the world had yet to see it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Seeing past its more outlandish and grotesque moments (hello Tommy Lee’s penis, how are you this fine evening?) to the human story at the centre. I had assumed that the show would garner wide conversation about how the couple at the centre of the sex tape scandal were treated and that people wouldn’t be able to stop talking about how brilliant Lily James was as Pamela Anderson.
I was, and I don’t mind admitting this occasionally, wrong! The bit of buzz that the eight-part miniseries mustered didn’t seem to get past the first few episodes.
So, why did the show fail to stir up much conversation outside of that pesky jabbering penis? To be honest, I think people were against the show from the start. Once it was discovered Pamela Anderson didn’t want this destructive time in her past revisited, people said it was immoral and wrong for the show to exist without her consent. It’s not a view I subscribe to. Particularly as Anderson is easily the most sympathetic character in the whole piece. The show can sometimes treat Tommy-Lee as an unthinking buffoon who lashes out when the slightest thing doesn’t go his way. It shows him as reckless and dangerous and often dim-witted, but Anderson is treated with the respect she deserves. It certainly changed my view of the Baywatch star. I’m not even sure where my preconceptions of her came from and it would have been easy for the show to lean on them heavily, but at every turn, whatever is happening, Anderson is shown as the victim.
The show perfectly examines the double standards that exist between the sexes. Pamela is looked down upon for pozing for Playboy, while Tommy-Lee is congratulated in bars for the size of his (non-talking) penis. In one pivotal and properly heartbreaking scene, the couple sneak into a cinema to see the crowd’s reaction to Pam’s first feature, Barb Wire. Tommy grins at seeing his wife up on the big screen while an anxious Pam looks on. The cinema is barely half-full and those who are watching are openly laughing at the concept of the film and Pamela’s lead performance. They leave in disgrace with Pamela heartbroken. It’s one of many scenes that really puts you on Anderson’s side. Thanks to convincing makeup, British starlet Lily James resembles Anderson far more than you’d imagine but she never portrays her as a caricature. It’s not a comedic take on the Baywatch star, but one exploring what happens when someone in the spotlight becomes famous for something that they had no control over.
The show is always reminding us that the release of their stolen sex tape is far more catastrophic for Anderson than it is for Lee. “My D**k is on that tape too!” he yells during a meeting with a lawyer. Pamela is quick to point out that she is the one who will be forever tarnished by its release.
It’s also an interesting look at the rise of the internet. When the tape first goes ‘viral’ it takes the central couple by surprise. They have no idea about the internet and the fact that it means their private moments will be seen by millions. In an interesting scene in the final episode, the couple is approached by Seth Warshavsky.
Seth is the head honcho from Internet Entertainment Group, who found a way to stream the tape on a worldwide scale. “The VHS tape, that was a flu,” the Lees’ lawyer tells them. “This is a plague.” Pam and Tommy sue Seth and his company, but a judge denies their injunction, since IEG isn’t charging money to view the video. The exec then makes the couple an offer for the rights to the tape, so he can actually sell it for profit. If he holds the rights, it would be illegal for other sites to upload it, which he argues would contain the tape to a far smaller amount of eyeballs. Tommy shuts him down, but on his way out, Seth leaves a contract and offer on the table. The pair don’t sign.
It’s in moments where Tommy Lee relaxes that Sebastian Stan really gets to shine in his role as the heavy metal drummer. Yes, the show paints him as an idiot, but it also sees him as someone who is aimless. In the final episode, his band are playing tracks from their new album at Hollywood’s Tower Records. He’s enjoying his moment in the spotlight when he spots a group of disinterested teenagers in Nirvana shirts and he starts to lose focus. The show looks at how Lee feels out of place after grunge takes over and makes his hard rock feel outdated. He’s lost his place in the world that is part of the reason he acts up, shows off or lashes out. He’s deeply unhappy with how his career is going and can’t seem to help his wife through something no couple should have to go through.
If there were one reason the show didn’t catch fire, it might be on the show’s insistence on featuring Seth Rogan’s Rand. Rand is the true loser of the story. He breaks into the Lee’s mansion to steal their safe and accidentally stumbles across the tape that would become infamous the world over. The show spends too much time trying to get the audience to sympathise with Rand as a man down on his luck who only does the wrong thing to make his crummy life a bit easier. It doesn’t really wash and while the other characters here feel multilayered and genuine, it’s impossible to feel anything for the man who stumbled across something he knew was private and decided to sell for profit. The show goes to frustrating lengths to show that Rand’s life also spins out of control when the tape went crazy but none of it feels necessary. The show has a tendency not to make anyone the villain of the piece, but Rand IS the villain who made a choice that sent this couple’s life into a downward spiral it would never really recover from. There I do feel the show failed.
On the whole, though, it deserved more conversation. More praise, more eyeballs. It’s a damning indictment on a society that still sees celebrity as fair game and forgets these people are in fact people and not just fodder for our amusement or grubby pleasure. Yes, Pamela Anderson didn’t want it made, but I doubt the Royals are overly pleased with the multi-award-winning The Crown, or that Diana would have approved of Spencer, but putting that aside, if Pamela Anderson were to watch this I think she’d find it hard to find anything wrong in the way she is portrayed here. She’s a woman who was subjected to one of the worst things that can happen to a person and she remained composed, dignified and true to what she wanted for herself professionally. The fact that the world turned against her, judged her, pigeonholed her and degraded her is on us and not on the woman who only wanted to be the best she could be. It’s just a shame she never got to reach her full potential.
So why wasn’t Pam & Tommy better received? Probably because most thought they knew what it would be and dismissed it as gratuitous, or outlandish. It also didn’t help that Rand was the focus of the early episode and even I, as a fan of the show, found him a difficult character to care about. There’s also the fact that a lot was made of that talking appendage. It did the series a disservice. It made it look debauched and silly and those who had stuck with beyond that party-filled second episode would have realised it was anything but. It was a crucial watch looking back at a difficult time in our recent history. Lily James and Sebastian Stan were both incredible as the couple, humanising them at every turn. That talking “thing” might be difficult to forget, but it’s the quieter, tender and moving moments that will stick with me here. If you dismissed the show, give it a chance, it’s not what you think it is.
Pam & Tommy is available worldwide on Disney+ and HULU in the US.