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‘Pam & Tommy’ and the Obsession With ’90s Revisionism

Beginning with a pair of high-profile O.J. Simpson series in 2016, pop culture at large has transformed into a revolving door of public figures misconstrued by the mass media of a quarter-century prior

Hulu/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

According to the calendar, the 1990s ended. According to film and TV, they merely went on hiatus. In 2016, the scripted miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and the eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America premiered within months of each other, to equally rapturous acclaim. The former swept the Emmys, taking home nine trophies; the latter won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In the half-decade since, the coincidence that brought both projects to air at around the same time has evolved into a more widely applicable playbook.

Beginning with the Simpson shows, pop culture at large transformed into a revolving door of public figures misconstrued by the mass media of a quarter-century prior, many of them women. (The two most sympathetic figures in the current understanding of Simpson’s case are Nicole Brown Simpson and ex-prosecutor Marcia Clark.) It’s a trend that spans media, encompassing feature films, docuseries, scripted shows, and podcasts. Subjects of this group portrait now include Lorena Bobbitt (Lorena), Monica Lewinsky (Impeachment: American Crime Story), Tonya Harding (I, Tonya), Tammy Faye Bakker (The Eyes of Tammy Faye), and Princess Diana (Spencer, the fourth and fifth seasons of The Crown). One could even argue that Yellowjackets, the Showtime drama that stars former ingenues like Christina Ricci as the haunted survivors of a ’90s plane crash, is a more metaphorical exercise in the same underlying approach.

Last fall, the hosts of the popular podcast You’re Wrong About announced they were abandoning the show’s initial structure, which deconstructed the ’90s and early ’00s one media frenzy at a time. (Past topics included Harding, Simpson, Bobbitt, Bakker, and Diana.) The move was an early, self-aware sign that this particular form of revisionist history may be running out of steam. But Hollywood operates under a slower, more diffuse, and much higher-budget kind of groupthink, and at least for now, today’s retellings of yesterday’s tabloid scandals go on. The latest example, Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, does not inspire confidence that this specific strain of storytelling has much left to mine.

Starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan as the namesake duo, Pam & Tommy traces the series of events that turned a sex tape recorded on the honeymoon of Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee into an object of public fascination. As chronicled in the Rolling Stone article from which the eight-episode show is adapted, the true story is indeed stranger than fiction: The tape was stolen from the couple’s Malibu mansion in 1995 by a disgruntled electrician and former porn star named Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen, also an executive producer), who absconded with an entire safe in the dead of night after Lee abruptly fired Gauthier, refused to pay him for tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of work, and threatened him at gunpoint. Gauthier then cut the safe open with a demolition saw, discovered what he had on his hands, and partnered with a scuzzy pornographer named Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman) to sell copies of the tape online. There, the tape generated an estimated $77 million in revenue, almost none of which Gauthier saw himself.

The story is a prime candidate for the “hindsight is 20/20” treatment—or more precisely, Anderson is. A blond bombshell with breast implants who rose to fame as a model for Playboy, Anderson was widely mocked as a sex-obsessed airhead both before and after the tape’s release. (In an echo of the Simpson bonanza of 2016, Pam & Tommy arrives close on the heels of Secrets of Playboy, an A&E docuseries that takes a critical look at the legacy of Hugh Hefner and his publication.) There were even rumors Anderson and Lee had leaked the tape themselves. Anderson was rarely acknowledged for what she was: the victim of an appalling invasion of privacy, magnified by a technology whose impact was only just starting to make itself known. In a world where smartphone nudes are commonplace and many states have laws against revenge porn, we aren’t so quick to snicker.

But whether Anderson deserves our sympathy is a separate question from whether Pam & Tommy succeeds at telling her story. The creative team’s CVs suggest the show is well aware of the footsteps it’s walking in. Created by screenwriter Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, The Founder), the first three episodes are helmed by Craig Gillespie, who also directed I, Tonya; the writing team includes D.V. DeVincentis, who won an Emmy for penning “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the Clark-focused episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson. (Other contributors include actress Lake Bell, who directs, and I Love Dick cocreator Sarah Gubbins, also a credited writer.)

Pam & Tommy borrows heavily, thematically and stylistically, from both these predecessors. Like I, Tonya, the show is brazenly maximalist—especially in the early episodes, which follow Anderson and Lee’s race from a nightclub encounter to a Mexican beach wedding in 96 hours. Obtrusive music cues either triple-underscore we’re in the ’90s (Fatboy Slim, Nine Inch Nails) or, more distressingly, contrast “classy” standards (Jerry Fuller, Carl Coccomo) with a “trashy” spectacle we’re invited to sneer at. (The honeymoon montage, which features Lee and Anderson having sex on a hotel balcony while she spills a drink in slow motion, is especially egregious.) The formal devices are often ostentatious, including a scene borrowed from Lee’s own memoir in which the rock star debates his own penis, voiced by comedian Jason Mantzoukas. Pam & Tommy may not break the fourth wall, but it does throw the kitchen sink at it to find out what sticks.

Once the tape starts spreading like wildfire, though, the show pivots into People v. O.J. mode, performing image rehab for its heroine. In its first episodes, Pam & Tommy is more like Rand & Tommy, a damning, contemptuous indictment of two men whose need to prove themselves only blows up in their faces. Eventually, the focus shifts to Anderson, the only character for whom Pam & Tommy feels anything more tender than naked (if earned) condescension. The show even goes out of its way to make her especially innocent and undeserving; this version of Anderson is explicitly unaware Lee stiffed Gauthier, while the reality is more ambiguous. (Neither Anderson nor Lee was involved in, or gave their approval for, the production, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth.)

Yet even as Anderson fell victim to the same institutional misogyny as figures like Harding or Bobbitt, her story proves much harder to dramatize in compelling fashion. That’s in part because her role in the tape saga is a passive one. Anderson has something happen to her—an undeniably awful situation, but one it’s still hard to draw out over six-odd hours, as Pam & Tommy inexplicably chooses to. Whatever their parallels to Anderson, Clark and Lewinsky were relatively active agents in their own notoriety, providing fuel for their respective series. Apart from attempting to sue Penthouse out of publishing stills from the tape on some spectacularly bad legal advice, Anderson is largely in the passenger’s seat.

It’s possible to imagine Pam & Tommy working as a movie, one that doesn’t have to belabor its points to fill running time. In this sense, the show is a classic case of form confusion, the increasingly widespread mismatch between a story and its chosen template. But Pam & Tommy worsens the problem by constantly spelling out its intended takeaways long after they’ve become obvious. “You’re a bad person,” Gauthier tells Lee. “Maybe I am,” he replies, “but what about Pamela?” The line is an inartful rehash of the statement made by focusing the pilot entirely on the two men, with Anderson on the periphery of a rivalry she’ll suffer from most. At first, Pam & Tommy lets the structure speak for itself, but it can’t resist gilding the lily.

Later in the same episode, Anderson delivers the speech that will surely serve as James’s Emmy reel. (With a platinum wig, redrawn eyebrows, and a breathy American accent, James delivers the kind of performance whose primary selling point is the actor’s extreme transformation.) “They can’t actually say that sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their body,” she cries of a judge who rules in Penthouse’s favor. Again, it’s a theme better conveyed by Anderson’s interactions with lawyers and talk show hosts, who embody the entitlement she’s trying to describe.

Such scenes make Pam & Tommy redundant, and not just internally. The show makes the same arguments as countless other ’90s-set projects, and rarely as well. Anderson rightly tells Lee the sex tape scandal will be far worse for her—“BECAUSE I’M A WOMAN,” she screams, the subgenre’s de facto slogan. Pam & Tommy’s struggles suggest we may be running out of high-profile tabloid stories to revisit, and that the cottage industry of said revisitations may be low on creative juice. The show’s heart lies with Anderson, but in spirit it may be closer to aging rocker Lee, struggling to admit his time at the center of culture has already come and gone.