The hype around Pam & Tommy, Hulu’s limited series (currently airing on Disney+ in Australia) that chronicles the infamous Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape scandal of the 1990s, has been huge. Our love of ‘90s nostalgia will not quit, for starters, but when photos emerged of leads Lily James and Sebastian Stan looking like mirror images of the Baywatch star and her rock god husband, anticipation skyrocketed.
Pam & Tommy starts out a little uncomfortably. The first three episodes are currently available to stream in Australia, but the first isn’t really indicative of how good this series becomes. We see very little of Anderson (Lily James), to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking the show was going to take a misogynistic look at the events through the eyes of the men involved – ex-porn star turned carpenter Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen) and erratic drummer of Motley Crue, Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan).
However, by episode two we are given James’ beyond-stellar performance (really, an embodiment) of Pamela Anderson – and the series gets underway. Show-runners Rob Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis interestingly chose to begin with the theft of the Anderson-Lee sex tape, with the first episode dedicated to Gauthier’s story, picking up Anderson and Lee’s relationship in the middle, instead of the beginning.
Episode two is when we get what we really want – a recreation of that whirlwind 96-hour relationship that culminated in a shock marriage, complete with bridal bikini and plenty of PDA. James and Stan have electric chemistry. One particular ‘sex scene’ (Anderson and Lee famously didn’t have sex until their wedding night) sees them sitting naked in bed, gently kissing and caressing each other. It feels almost voyeuristic to watch them, so convincing is their attraction.
If Lily James and Sebastian Stan don’t get every nomination possible for this series, it will be a huge shock. They are the ‘90s couple, down to the wire. James (yes, those are prosthetic breasts, which James told Entertainment Weekly were “really sweaty” and would often slide off) nails every Pamela Anderson quirk and mannerism, never crossing over into parody. James’ Pamela is sweet, a little naive, and completely overwhelmed by the Hollywood machine. She’s Marilyn Monroe of the 1990s.
Stan’s Tommy Lee is equally as arresting performance-wise. He is all energy and spontaneity – you can tell that Stan is relishing in this role, he gives it everything, a wild, over-confident rock star with a habit of thinking with his dick who sweeps everyone around him up in his chaotic energy.
The talking-dick scene is one that could really have not worked, yet somehow does. Yes, at one point we have Lee in conversation with his own (CGI) penis, which warns him against getting married to Anderson. This is a scene lifted from Lee’s own biography, by the way, and is a great example of how this series manages to be outrageous without feeling ridiculous. Lee is so much, it doesn’t feel at all odd to have him discussing his nuptials with his appendage.
Still, this is a relationship that crumbled quickly into toxicity and alleged abuse. It’s this alleged abuse that brings us to Pamela Anderson and her refusal to be involved with Pam & Tommy. In short, despite attempts from both D.V. DeVincentis and Lily James to get input from Anderson, the star remained silent.
Since marketing for the series began, sources who say they are close with Anderson have spoken to media, saying the creation of the series without her consent has been “very painful” and that she “won’t be watching” it. There is a particular hypocrisy about a series that sympathises with Anderson and the release of her private sex tape without her consent, that is also telling a story that they weren’t given approval to tell.
It’s this hypocrisy that makes championing Pam & Tommy really hard. On the surface, I enjoyed the first three episodes so much – they’re fun, brilliantly paced and acted, and tell a fascinating story. But if I dig deeper, I feel conflicted. In a post #MeToo era where consent is everything, was it ethical to go ahead with this series given Anderson refused to involve herself? It is, after all, a horrendous experience she went through – not only were her belongings stolen and her private videos released to the world, her relationship with Lee itself was allegedly abusive (Lee was charged with spousal and child abuse in 1998). It makes total sense that she would not want to relive that period of her life, or have it brought back under the microscope.
Still, Anderson didn’t explicitly stand against the series, at least not officially. Her opposition is grounded in rumours and her radio silence during production. Perhaps she was simply not interested in immersing herself in that period of her life again, but isn’t necessarily opposed to the story being told. That re-telling opportunity is what gave series director Craig Gillespie some peace in their decision to go ahead. “The thing that gave me comfort was I felt like we really had an opportunity to change the narrative of this story, and to show it from a perspective that people can hopefully learn and grow from. And I felt that we portrayed them in a very empathetic way,” he told Radio Times. Anderson is definitely not the cookie-cutter blonde bimbo personality that ‘90s media made her out to be. Even the first sequence, which sees talk show host Jay Leno quizzing Anderson on her sex tape like it’s a joke, and not a serious violation of privacy, immediately positions this story as trauma, not titillation.
Is it enough to be telling a misogynistic story with a new, empathetic and female-focused lens? I’m not so sure. What I am sure about is that Pam & Tommy will definitely be an awards season hit.
Melissa is a freelance writer. You can find her on Instagram.