Dr. Feelbad

The many missteps of ‘Pam & Tommy’

Everything about Pamela Anderson was big in the 90s. Her hair, her boobs, and most especially, her career. When Pam moved, the world watched, in a curious and/or pervy way. Her surprise marriage to Tommy Lee and the ensuing release of their very private sex tape generated endless tabloid fodder and broadened the internet-innocent world’s knowledge of porn. Hulu’s Pam & Tommy attempts to delve into the mania, with disappointingly mixed results.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In 1994, Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), was a manic, free-wheeling drummer with a career on the decline due to that newfangled grunge music. Handyman Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) hates working for Lee, who’s erratic mood swings and frequent design changes drive the contractor batty. As a working man, Rand lacks the coin to continuously make costly adjustments to the project, but Tommy is offended any time he’s asked for money. Tensions rise, and reach a breaking point when Rand sees Pamela (Lily James) half naked. She feels violated, which gives Tommy all the incentive he needs to fire his unsatisfactory employee.

Pam & Tommy
Sebastian Stan and Lily James play dress-up in ‘Pam & Tommy.’ (Hulu).

When Rand attempts to retrieve his toolbox, an irate Tommy holds him at gunpoint and demands the box for himself. Burned by the dismissal and humiliated by the threats, Rand hatches an elaborate plan to rob Tommy by stealing his home safe. He believes in karma and thinks this is exactly the retribution Lee deserves. After hours of surveillance and tons of notetaking, Rand successfully executes his one-man heist, and discovers a more valuable asset than he ever anticipated, a graphic Hi8 cassette tape recorded on Pam and Tommy’s honeymoon.

Pam & Tommy makes the odd choice of centering the narrative on Rand, as though the sad-sack thief is a relatable everyman. Seth Rogen rocks his Patrick Swayze in Road House mullet super hard, and even tries to moderate his typical brash tones to produce a reasonable facsimile of range, but as an actor, he has the approximate depth and versatility of a kiddie pool. Pairing him with the sublime Nick Offerman as porn lech and tape distributor Uncle Miltie does no  one any favors.

Rogen’s weak performance aside, It feels outrageously off the mark to angle to endear this creeper to the public when he is a real person who actually stole a woman’s most private moments and exploited them for his own petty vengeance and financial glory. Maybe it’s valuable to reveal his motives, and the idea is to present a flawed man who saw a shot at fortune and took it, but again—ew. Unlike other recent attempts to reframe 90s women thoroughly dragged by the press and the public, Pam & Tommy lacks behind-the-scenes participation from its star subject, and her absence is felt.

The resultant tone is jarring, as the show lumbers between earnest attempts to portray Pam as a vulnerable sexpot, forced into a career of making nice with all the men who can’t stop ogling her, while simultaneously encouraging the audience to revel in her spankbankability. It’s ironic that the modern lens applied to this wronged woman’s story completely fails to enlighten, but rather, is an exercise in history repeating itself, peddling her wares for our amusement regardless of how she might feel all over again.

Pam & Tommy isn’t without merit. James disappears entirely into Anderson, carrying off the voice, the style, and the softness. Her performance is ably assisted by some astounding work from the hair and makeup team, who entirely outdid themselves with prosthetics, a boatload of bronzer, and bang-up eyebrow pencil work. While the superb cosmetic FX boosts James’s chameleonic transformation, Stan never stops looking like a kid playing dress up in a rock star costume he bought on sale at Party City, with a fake penis he picked up somewhere else.

Pam & Tommy
Tommy Lee talks to his penis in one of the more subtle moments of ‘Pam & Tommy’. (Hulu)

It’s hard to hope a production that goes so (literally) balls out to titillate will manage to harness enough focus to make any sort of coherent statement, which turns Pam & Tommy  into a hollow viewing experience. It makes a certain kind of sense to tune in to see if the world finally gives Pamela her due, and if, as marketed, the show finally tells the “untold story”. But, given all the factors at play here, turning it off is probably the best choice.

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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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