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Sex, Drugs, and ‘Pam & Tommy’

The new miniseries from Hulu is a grim survey of a love affair and the merciless act of revenge porn that upended it

Hulu/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I will never forgive Pam & Tommy, the new Hulu miniseries centered on the multimedia hell-storm triggered by Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s stolen 1995 sex tape, for not letting Mötley Crüe and Third Eye Blind fight. I mean physically, brutally fight; I mean a full-bore, Anchorman-style studio brawl. “Hi! Hi! Hey! Who the fuck are you guys?” snarls Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in the fifth episode. Lee, played by Sebastian “Winter Soldier” Stan as an antic whirlwind of personal and professional decline, has just burst into a studio room larger than the meager space allotted to his aging, flailing, ’90s laughingstock of a band. “Third Eye Blind,” the guy playing notoriously smirky 3EB frontman Stephan Jenkins replies, with a simper. Yes! Ha ha ha! YES!

More words are exchanged, most of them expository (turns out they’re on the same record label) and all of them inaudible due to the distracting sound of me salivating like a cartoon wolf tempted with a giant raw cartoon steak. FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. “What the fuck, they book these ass clowns in the Big Room over us?” Lee thunders, rhetorically. “Guess so! Sorry, man!” Jenkins shoots back. I will renew my Hulu account for the next five years, this instant, if they let all these assholes throw hands for even 30 seconds. C’mon! I don’t care that no such fracas occurred in real life. (As far as we know!) C’MON! Have some balls, man! Take a little something called poetic license! But alas. “Doesn’t matter,” Lee mutters, deflated, as he storms out, and I suppose it doesn’t, and I will be mad about this until the end of time.

This is definitely not the desired takeaway from Pam & Tommy, which is both sordid and scolding, exploitative and excoriating, hell-bent on having its cake and sticking Tommy Lee’s dick in it, too. Sorry for that image, but this eight-episode chaos whirlwind of a show includes a quite lengthy (sorry) scene in which Lee argues with his penis, which is voiced by Jason Mantzoukas and shot in lurid closeup as it undulates mid-conversation. Tommy and his dick are holding court in a hotel bathroom, debating whether or not Baywatch star Pamela Anderson (played by Lily “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!” James) is the girl of his dreams. Tommy wins the battle, but after the whirlwind marriage proposal, the world-historically horny honeymoon, the low-key wholesome home video documenting that honeymoon, the wildly implausible and yet real-life burglary theft of that video, and the cascade of wantonly sexist screwball catastrophes that result, his dick wins the war.

Pam & Tommy, created by Robert D. Siegel (screenwriter of The Founder and The Wrestler) and inspired by a disconcertingly thorough 2014 Rolling Stone feature by Amanda Chicago Lewis, contains multitudes of genres, tones, and potential takeaways. It’s a medium-gritty heist that involves flashy walk-and-talks through multiple pornography studios. It’s a gratuitous sex-scene bacchanal celebrating the trashy (but occasionally quite sweet) love affair between a buffoonish rock star and a crudely disrespected TV starlet. It’s a grim survey of that love affair’s Scenes From a Marriage–style dissolution once Tommy and especially Pam are victimized by—and the show is admirably unambiguous about this—a merciless act of revenge porn. And it’s a ’90s period piece in which the action begins in 1995 with a needle drop of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” which did not come out until 1998, and yes, obviously, I’m angry about that, too.

What the show mostly wants to be, of course, is another Oh Geez We Did Her Dirty prestige reexamination of an unfairly maligned cultural figure, most of whom hail from the ’90s: Think Lorena Bobbitt, Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark, the Extended Britney Spears Documentary Universe, Tonya Harding. (Craig Gillespie, director of I, Tonya—and Cruella!—helms Pam & Tommy’s first three episodes, up on Hulu now, with a weekly rollout from there.) Pamela Anderson—whom James plays as bubbly but steely, impulsive but shrewd, naively optimistic but regularly the smartest person in a roomful of lecherous old-white-guy lawyers—does emerge, eventually, as this show’s true heroine, or at least its most noble victim. (“Sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their bodies,” is how she exasperatedly summarizes one of her and Tommy’s many legal defeats.) But for a trashy and shockingly bingeable eight-episode romp, there are an awful lot of dour assholes fighting for screen time, and quite a few dicks, too. Some of the dickishness is quite specific to the ’90s, but a lot of it, naturally, is timeless.

The dourest of those assholes is one Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), a disgruntled contractor toiling away on an endless renovation of Pamela and Tommy’s Malibu mansion until he is (in no particular order) bullied, humiliated, fired, threatened at shotgunpoint, relieved of his tools, and jilted out of $19,000 by the thong-underwear’d man of the house. Infuriated, Rand cases the mansion for weeks, breaks in during the dead of night, flips off Pam & Tommy as they sleep, and steals Tommy’s safe, which contains money, jewelry, guns, and (Rand eventually realizes) a comically exuberant honeymoon sex tape. He partners with an extra-oily porn magnate (Nick Offerman) and starts selling mail-order copies on something called the World Wide Web. Roughly 85 percent of any ’90s period piece, in any medium, consists of incredulous people who’ve never heard of the internet having the internet hilariously explained to them. (Though the scene when a high-powered PR agent walks Pam through an AltaVista search is oddly heartbreaking.)

Pam and Tommy are humiliated and powerless and ruined, or at least immediately she is, and eventually they are as a unit, and this show’s thorniest and most compelling moments come when she can’t quite convince him how much worse all this is for her. (The revelation, in a quick postscript, that the couple first divorced in 1998 following his arrest for felony spousal battery is saved for the last episode, and obliterates most of Pam & Tommy’s romantic charm.) It might actually be an overall weakness that a lot of this really happened. The Rolling Stone piece is truly wild, and Rogen is the right guy to embody an initially harmless dimwit pseudo-intellectual. (He capably delivers the line “I’m somewhat of an amateur theologian” and also masturbates twice in the pilot’s first 25 minutes.) What makes Rogen the right guy is that he’s at least hypothetically still lovable and sympathetic even as he does a genuinely awful and toxic and unforgivable thing; when he meets cute, in flashback, with the quirky young lady (Taylor Schilling) who’ll one day be his ex-wife and she informs him that she’s a porn star, the slow bloom of dopey joy on his face is the best acting anybody does during this whole show. (It is Schilling’s thankless job, late in the series, to basically explain such foreign concepts as consent and revenge porn to her also-ruined ex-husband.)

But once Rand’s got the tape, the show’s garbage-crime thriller aspect is way hackneyed. (He sneaks out a building’s back door to evade various thugs three times in the same episode.) Offerman’s a fun scumbag (“Stop smiling, it’s a fucking dungeon” is a great oily-porn-director line) but he’s quickly required by real-life plot developments to vanish in Amsterdam. Sebastian Stan is trying very hard to channel Tommy Lee’s doofus exuberance and hair-trigger fury, but put it this way: He’s a better actor than Machine Gun Kelly, but Machine Gun Kelly made a better Tommy Lee. As for Pamela, Lily James brings a loud exuberance of her own and a quiet dignity, but by the series’ halfway point—her sex tape spreading like a virus, her movie career DOA, her horny Baywatch overlords preferring she speak no lines at all—she’s a pinball bouncing between innumerable clueless sexist jerkoffs. Pam & Tommy functions, as per the Oh Geez We Did Her Dirty formula, as an eight-episode international apology to her, but she’s a tragic figure on a show that plays the rest of this scenario for ribald laughs. (“Do not compliment me on my dick, you fuck!” Tommy bellows with genuine pathos to an awestruck fan in a bar late in the game, and the show knows this is a little funny but tragically underestimates how funny, exactly.)

What this jumble of tones and morals leaves us with is the concrete ’90s tourism of it all, from the Yellowjackets-core jukebox of hits (4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” for one of Pam’s many moments of devastation, and Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” for a far cheerier young-love montage except that song came out in 1999, you clods) to the deliriously random Clinton-era set dressing (including Game Boys, coin-operated printers, the “You Oughta Know” video, the world’s worst Jay Leno impression, and an aggravated assault via a copy of The Celestine Prophecy). Andrew Dice Clay, playing the mafia goon who initially bankrolls the sex-tape distribution scheme, is offered a coffee from this new joint called Starbucks but grouchily refuses; nobody anywhere halfway understands the internet but everybody can’t stop talking about it. A great period piece should ideally offer pleasures beyond watching everyone be catastrophically wrong about everything, but from “Guys, nobody’s getting rich off a celebrity sex tape” to “The tape is gonna go away and Barb Wire is gonna be the biggest movie in the world,” much of the dialogue is designed to make these people sound stupid, or at least make you, the savvy 2022 viewer, feel intellectually and morally superior. At least we know better now. Right? Right?

Pam & Tommy starts off as an energetically made tale of debauchery and titillation that slowly and awkwardly makes you feel bad for getting off on it. (Sorry for the phrasing, but there’s an actual montage of dudes buying the sex tape and then reaching for the Kleenex and lotion.) The thesis—Pam deserved better—is noble, but she deserved better from this show, too. (Needless to say, the real Pamela Anderson refused to get involved in the production in any way.) What’s left, for me anyway, is the more niche pleasures of watching a fictionalized Tommy Lee grouse about life in the ’90s, whether he’s demanding, “What the fuck is this shit?” when Sleater-Kinney comes on at a bar or muttering “Fuck Seattle” as he pages through a music magazine or getting mean-mugged by dudes in Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam T-shirts. He just wasn’t made for these times, which is arguably a credit to the times. But this would’ve been a better show if it had let Tommy punch out the guy from Third Eye Blind, or if it had let Pam punch out virtually anyone.