Hulu’s Pam & Tommy Turns a ’90s Punchline Into an All-Too-Human Tragedy

TV Reviews Pam and Tommy
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This review original published January 26, 2022

In recent years, pop culture has (at long last) been attempting to wrestle with many of the damaging and problematic assumptions that were freely promoted and we therefore all generally held in the 1990s, particularly when it comes to famous women. Back then, we—and our media—loved misogynistically blaming women for their own problems, condemning their sexuality, denying their agency, and generally treating their open and obvious pain as little more than the butt of late-night jokes. And it’s taken the better part of three decades for us all to realize that this was not just deeply and profoundly wrong, but that these misunderstood women deserve a shot at, if not redemption, at least some sort of cultural reassessment and reset.

As a result, over the past five years, we’ve seen a steady stream of prestige entertainment properties that attempt to both reclaim and reframe the lives of these women, positioning their stories as award-winning dramas rather than tawdry tabloid soap operas. From Tonya Harding (I, Tonya) to Monica Lewinsky (Impeachment: American Crime Story), Britney Spears (Framing Britney Spears), and Anita Hill (Confirmation), pop culture seems to finally be ready to admit that we did these women dirty and they deserved better from all of us.

Hulu’s Pam & Tommy is the latest drama offering in this vein, an incisive, occasionally heartbreaking, and often laugh-out-loud funny exploration of the volatile relationship between former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee and the global scandal that followed in the wake their very private, very adult home video being leaked. And to be clear, the series is fantastic, anchored by transformative performances from stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan, as well as a crystal-clear sense of purpose. Because in this version of events, both Pam and Tommy are victims several times over, and no matter how many dumb decisions they may make, the Hulu show that bears their names never lets us forget that fact.

But despite its often uncomfortable subject matter, Pam & Tommy smartly never takes itself too seriously. After all, this is also a show where there is, as many of you have probably already heard, a sequence in which Stan’s Tommy has an extended conversation with an animatronic version of his own penis. (It namedrops several of the rocker’s previous girlfriends.) The show is full of nudity, a subplot is largely set in a porn studio, and there are dozens of references to the dirty things people (read: mostly men) like to get up to online. The show also pokes fun at the overblown nature of celebrity lifestyles, marvels at the awkward newness of this phenomenon known as “the internet,” and indulges in plenty of overblown 1990s nostalgia. (RIP Tower Records, we miss you.)

But underneath all the arch commentary about the rise of grunge and the unreliable nature of modems is something much darker: an acknowledgment that our society then didn’t—and quite possibly still doesn’t now—view women like Pamela Anderson, who based much of their careers on physical attractiveness, as worthy of anything close to respect or sympathy. There’s a lot to love about James’ chameleon-like depiction of Pam, but nothing so much as the actress’ slowly dawning horror that not only does almost no one care about the devastating invasion of privacy the release of her sex tape represents, a disturbingly large portion of society seems to think she deserved what happened to her. And all because she had nude pictures taken professionally.

Yet, as biographical narratives go, Pam & Tommy is remarkably even-handed, showing us the titular couple’s whirlwind romance and genuine love for one another, even as it highlights Tommy’s often obsessive, controlling, and downright awful behavior. (His insistence on following Pam to Mexico and his refusal to take no for an answer before they’re even technically dating should raise all kinds of red flags for everyone watching, no matter how well Stan and James sell the couple’s overwhelming attraction.) It’s also uncomfortably forthright about the deeply misogynistic way everything from the media to the justice system reacted to the existence of the sex tape, as Pam’s career options are inexorably whittled down while Tommy’s remain, well, as solid as they could be given the overall quality of Motley Crue’s 1997 album, Generation Swine.

The show also includes the stories of several other major figures involved in the sex tape scandal, including Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogan), the disgruntled electrician who steals the safe in which the infamous tape resides after Tommy stiffs him on the bill for some renovations, and porn impresario ??Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman), who helps him figure out how to distribute it. Offerman’s turn as the sleazeball “Uncle Miltie” is as hilarious as anyone might have hoped, and Rogan’s sad-sack, yet still eminently punchable demeanor is used to great effect for much of the series’ eight episodes, as he unironically bemoans the theft of his already stolen property by parking lot VHS bootleggers and internet streaming profiteers.

But perhaps the greatest trick Pam & Tommy pulls is the sly, smart way it makes us, as the viewers who are watching this show on an internet streaming platform, feel uncomfortable and borderline complicit in the mess that the couple’s lives became. The Wild West feel of the early days of the World WIde Web meant that the real Lee and Anderson had little recourse when their stolen property began to be widely distributed online, and the show is not subtle in its frequent reminders of how eager much of the world was to watch their tape, often without ever once considering that the people illicitly frolicking on their screens were real human beings with lives and emotions.

Average folks aren’t let off the hook either—after all, we were the ones out here laughing at Jay Leno’s cringe sex jokes and assuming Pamela enjoyed rather than loathed all the attention the tape brought into her life. Even today, how many of us have complained recently about paywalls or behaved as though the content mill of the internet exists for our entertainment alone? And if we feel more than a bit guilty about Pam’s clear and abject misery after we watch this show, well, don’t we kind of deserve to?

Pam & Tommy premieres Wednesday, February 2nd on Hulu.

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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