The 1990s were a turning point in ways that make the huge nostalgia trend happening right now even more fascinating than the time period itself. It was the era before social media, before cell phones and the age of celebrity video.
The 90s saw everything from the dramatic deaths of public figures like Gianni Versace to the most widely seen car chase in television news history – and subsequent trial – with O.J. Simpson and the very private details of nothing less than the President of the United States, Bill Clinton. Interestingly enough, the three topics of the American Crime Story anthology that really started this nostalgia craze and there are times where Craig Gillespie’s Pam & Tommy feels like it fits right into that universe. It was the time when television news turned into entertainment.
The legacy of the stolen sex tape of model-turned actress Pamela Anderson and Motley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee fits right in there as a zeitgeist moment of the decade, where video was king and the internet was in its infancy, turning a personal violation into a very public affair. But when you think about when this happened, does anyone remember how the tape got out in the first place? As goes many over the top news stories, the origin story is often lost but Pam & Tommy digs in to find a tale of revenge, desperation, loan sharks, internet entrepreneurs and a lovable schlubb named Rand at the center of it all.
Seth Rogen plays that schlub and exudes the kind of affable loser energy that the Coen Brothers love; like Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona or The Dude in The Big Lebowski, he’s not a bad guy but either finds himself in over his head or caught up in a gambit way out of his league. After weeks of unpaid work on Lee’s new mega-mansion where the rocker is constantly changing plans on him and other contractor’s then firing them all in a fit of range, withholding what he owes them. This turns the meek Rand into the man that would change internet celebrity forever as he breaks into the couple’s home in 1995 and steals a safe, unwittingly containing the private tape which would eventually find its way into the hands of porn producers and entrepreneurs and in front of the eyes of millions of people on their computer screens.
The limited series hits several beats in the career of Pamela Anderson, from being discovered in 1989 at a Canadian football game wearing a Labatt’s beer jersey (and then becoming a spokesmodel) to her several appearances in Playboy magazine, where to this day she holds the record for most covers of the magazine. When Pam and Tommy meet, Lee is on a downturn in career as bands like Motley Crüe are having to make way for the grunge wave from Seattle from bands like Nirvana and the female rock of Sleater-Kinney, all while Anderson’s popularity is on a meteoric rise with her megahit Baywatch, setting up what is a classic ‘A Star Is Born story.’
Anderson is presented as an earnest feminist who was never taken seriously because she didn’t fit into the mold or perception of what a feminist was. But she was the physical representation of everything it isn’t. When an emotional monologue is cut from a scene in Baywatch, Anderson implores the (old, white, male) director and producers to put it back in but they deny her in order to add more slo-mo running on the beach. She’s consistently stripped of her agency despite being the show’s main draw, both domestically and internationally, by men who think they know better.
Lily James as Pamela Anderson is nothing short of a revelation. The dowdy Lady Rose from Downton Abbey this is not as James imbues Anderson with purpose and passion and gives us a side of her rarely seen. Thanks in no small part goes to the stunning hair and makeup work by Barry Lee Moe, David Williams and Jason Collins. But this is no ‘let the makeup do the work’ performance; the work – be it the gleaming teeth or bleach-blonde ‘do – are never distracting and never take away from James’ stunning performance, they enhance it. James exudes strength and vulnerability in equal measure, giving Anderson complex nuances throughout.
Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee is excellent although he does suffer a bit from not having the very tall and lanky stature that Lee, who is 6’2” to Anderson’s 5’7”, is known for. Here, he’s the same height as James and inevitably it takes away from the performance ever so slightly. But what he misses in inches above he more than makes up for in inches below as Lee’s other well known feature has always been his endowment. Famously long, Lee’s hog is not only shown in its full glory (after a Jaws-like tease from clips of the video) but it talks like something right out of Big Mouth. Adding to that connection is that it’s voiced by none other than Jason Mantzoukas…from Big Mouth. Regrettably (or maybe not), Lee’s verbose main vein only appears in one episode never to be seen or heard from again. It’s the only moment that ventures into a campy, satirical zone the way that Gillespie’s I, Tonya did throughout and in retrospect feels wildly out of place despite being a pretty funny sight gag. But make no mistake, this is Anderson’s story through and through.
When the film Barb Wire comes her way in 1996 she expects it to be her big break, her Barbarella (Anderson makes a point of telling a publicist that Jane Fonda is her role model – a sex symbol turned revolutionary, Oscar-winning actress and business icon) that will catapult her career to the next level. When she and Tommy sneak into a public screening after the red carpet premiere of the film, however, the writing is on the wall – it’s a flop and a laughingstock. Not deterred, Anderson continues to aim high, auditioning for the film L.A. Confidential in the role that would eventually win Kim Basinger an Oscar. Just a few years later, Kim Kardashian would be able to parlay a sex tape into a multi-billion dollar empire while Anderson’s stock continued to sink.
Much has been said about creating a series without the involvement of or permission from either Anderson or Lee and one can take it as yet another violation of their individual privacy to do so, by digging up a trauma they’d like to forget, and understandably so. To their credit, what Gillespie, showrunner Robert Siegel, producers Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Megan Ellison do is give Anderson a telling of her story that she deserves. One of sensitivity that shows the audience the person behind the tape, behind the swimsuit to reveal the woman that more than a sex symbol, more than a target of paparazzi but an optimist, a misunderstood feminist who would go on to rise from the ashes of controversy to become a philanthorpist and activist in a way that made Jane proud.
Pam & Tommy premieres the first three of eight episodes February 2nd exclusively on Hulu with new episodes streaming weekly.
Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu