Newsworthy events of the 1990s have surprisingly made for some of the best television of the past decade, with two excellent seasons of American Crime Story separately focusing on O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinski leading the TV pack. Myriad reboots of classic ’90s shows have been developed and reformatted for modern times, too– Twin Peaks, Full House, Roseanne, Saved By the Bell, Party of Five, Rugrats, a plethora of animated ’90s shows, and more decade-defining series have re-entered the cultural lexicon three decades after their premiers.
It’s understandable to think that a ‘prestige TV’ show about the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape would be the dismal nadir of ’90s nostalgia, and yet Pam & Tommy strangely surpasses all expectations. Hulu’s eight-episode series (three of which were released on Feb. 2, with episodes being released weekly) undoubtedly preys on the human tendency toward reminiscence, what with its constant ’90s music, television, technology, and celebrities. However, it uses this nostalgia as a catalyst for a deeper investigation into celebrity culture, American individualism, the dawn of the internet, and the decay of older moral standards. If that sounds too serious, don’t worry; it’s also very funny.
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The Real-Life Randy Rand
The show was originally developed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This is the End, Superbad), based on the Rolling Stone article, “Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape” by Amanda Chicago Lewis. James Franco was originally set to star as Motley Crue member Tommy Lee, but left after allegations of sexual misconduct levied at him convinced Rogen not to work with the actor anymore. Instead, Sebastian Stan wholly inhabits the role with mischievous glee, fluctuating between extreme obnoxiousness and cruelty regarding nearly everyone in his life except Pamela Anderson, who somehow reduces him to an overeager little boy head-over-heels in love. Lily James is almost unrecognizable as she transforms into Anderson, mastering her mannerisms and finding the innocence in a woman whom everyone wanted to only sexualize. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the first great one of the year.
Seth Rogen surprisingly dominates the majority of the proceedings, however, as a spurned contractor who Lee stiffed out of something like $20,000 (depending on the source). Rogen plays the real-life Rand Gauthier with subtlety, though it’s nearly impossible for the actor to embody a role without the audience immediately thinking, “Oh, look, it’s that funny stoner guy, Seth Rogen.” It doesn’t help that his character seems to embrace many ‘Rogenisms,’ like smoking marijuana, cursing excessively, and watching pornography. Gauthier is a fascinating character (and person)– his mother was a Jehovah’s witness, he starred in dozens of pornographic films, he developed an impressive encyclopedic interest in religions and cults, and he grew marijuana out of his garage. Rogen seems to recognize his uniqueness, and the subsequent performance leans into their similarities and explores their differences with great curiosity.
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Gauthier was the contractor (electrician in real life, carpenter, and renaissance man in Pam & Tommy) who Lee fired and refused to pay. When Gauthier returned one day to pick up his own box of tools, Tommy Lee held a shotgun in his face and threatened to kill him, telling Gauthier to leave the tools. The terrified man grew bitter and plotted a plan to sneak into the celebrities’ house and steal their safe; along with numerous guns, jewelry, and cash, Gauthier discovered a home video with salacious adult content between Lee and Pamela Anderson, the massive sex symbol whom everyone tuned in to Baywatch for. This began a long, dangerous process of exploring profitable but safe ways to sell the tape without getting caught, and led Gauthier and his porn-director-turned-business-partner Uncle Miltie (played with wonderful sleaze by Nick Offerman) into a relationship with the mob.
Stan & James
The plot winds and rewinds around 1995 and ’96 in a non-linear way, following Gauthier as he schemes and plans (and struggles with feelings for his ex-wife), while also detailing the first time Anderson and Lee met, and the story of their marriage after only four real days of knowing each other. The entire first episode essentially follows Gauthier and his process of being wronged; Lee is an oft-shirtless abominable jerk here, a threatening, toxic nightmare of a man. In the next episodes, though, completely different facets of the character emerge, in large part due to his relationship with Anderson. Sebastian Stan (known by most as the MCU’s Winter Soldier) does an incredible job making Lee somehow likable in certain places despite the viewer’s knowledge of his usually abhorrent behavior. This is a man with no moral compass, and yet when Anderson is around, she provides the electromagnetism needed for his needle to spin again; she is his true north.
Pam & Tommy is often at its best when it explores the little moments between characters, especially the titular ones. After they get married, and after all the honeymoon sex and breakfast in bed, Pam and Tommy find themselves alone together in the banal world, sitting in airplanes and in cars. “Where are we going?” Lee asks his wife in the backseat. He pauses, then says, “Wait, where do you live?” There is such an obvious disconnect between the couple, that they’re forced to bond over minuscule things like a shared love of French fries, along with what may be the themes of the series– their celebrity appearances, empty sexual gestures, exorbitant lifestyles, and uncompromising individualism.
Keeping with current trends in the so-called ‘golden age of television,’ hardly anyone else in the series is fully likable, either. Gauthier is a sympathetic protagonist, but even he has broken into someone’s home, stolen their most intimate possession as a couple, and proceeded to make a profit from it by selling it to the world. The only person who may not be entirely ethically dubious is Anderson, though she is tragically drawn to immoral men and ‘bad boys.’ She seems kind and genuine and wants to be a great actor who isn’t pigeonholed, and Lily James (Downtown Abbey, Yesterday, Cinderella) plays every scene perfectly. In one remarkable shot, she talks with a woman leading her PR campaign about where she sees her career going; she says that she admires Jane Fonda, a woman who could be the sex symbol of Barbarella, the protestor of the Vietnam War, the business mogul of exercise tapes, and the Oscar-winning actor simultaneously. Anderson sees freedom in Fonda, the freedom for a woman to just do anything she’d like regardless of which box society and culture wishes to put her in. Maybe Anderson sees that freedom reflected in Lee’s unhinged behavior.
Related: Pamela Anderson Celebrated on Her 54th Birthday as Pam & Tommy Release Gets Closer
Deep in the Inner Nets
In a nice nod to Seth Rogen’s portrayal of computer pioneer Steve Wozniak in the film Jobs, Rogen’s character in Pam & Tommy is an early internet user. Even though it was a celebrity sex tape, Gauthier was actually one of the initial people to sell merchandise online, with the very first e-commerce transaction taking place just one year prior. The internet contains a fascinating dichotomy, one which the show explores at length– a person can be entirely anonymous online, and yet learn (and watch) the most intimate details about other people. “I don’t think we should be watching this,” Offerman’s character says of the tape, and that’s coming from a porn director.
This is the kind of one-way relationship the show is actually criticizing at length. When our understanding of others is based upon our own gaze alone (be it the sexualizing male gaze, the adoration of celebrity, or the stereotyping of certain people), as if we were interacting with others through a single screen, the important complexities and humanity of a person become entirely absent. This is why it’s interesting to see two sides of Lee, along with Gauthier, Anderson, and the adult film characters in the series– people are complicated but are often only viewed through one lens. There are so many interesting details about a person that gets caught in their inner nets and disregarding that in favor of a one-way screen is unfortunate. “I am large,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.”
Aside from all that, the show is often just straightforwardly funny. This makes sense, considering it’s technically created and co-written by Robert Siegel, the Senior Editor, and Editor-in-Chief of legendary satirical paper (and early website) The Onion. Siegel’s script often goes to uncompromisingly graphic and weird places, brought vividly to life by director Craig Gillespie (who worked with Sebastian Stan for I, Tonya). Nonetheless, the writer and showrunner know when to rein in his wilder satirical impulses and focus on quiet, curious moments of drama and tension; Siegel was, after all, the writer of Darren Aronofsky’s heavy film The Wrestler.
The balancing act is difficult to maintain, but Pam & Tommy does a frequently excellent job. It’s a unique ‘prestige TV’ show, one that dwells on some extremely non-prestigious things with honesty, wit, and mounds of human interest and compassion. It’s a show that’s highly worth watching.
Pam & Tommy Set Photos Recreate Iconic Beach Wedding with Lily James and Sebastian Stan
The actors are set to play the former couple in an upcoming tv series. Pictures that were released show the recreation of the duo’s famous beach wedding.
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Editor and writer for Movieweb.com. Lover of film, philosophy, and theology. Amateur human. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
From Matthew Mahler