“Pam & Tommy” Tries to Reframe an Infamous Stolen Sex Tape, But Ultimately Winds Up Exploiting It

Hulu's new miniseries has good intentions but one fatal flaw

February 2, 2022 8:50 am
Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Hulu's "Pam & Tommy."
Lily James and Sebastian Stan in Hulu's "Pam & Tommy."

In recent years, we’ve seen a rash of films and TV shows aimed at reevaluating the female celebrities we collectively dragged through the mud in the ’90s and early ’00s. Documentaries about Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and Paris Hilton sought to reexamine the misogynistic ways they were portrayed in the mainstream media 20 years ago, and movies like I, Tonya and The Eyes of Tammy Fayeimage rehab cinema, if you will — tried to encourage us to think differently about the women we were told to hate in the ’90s. It makes sense, then, that eventually it’d be Pamela Anderson’s turn for a feminist reframing.

Hulu’s new eight-part miniseries Pam & Tommy (the first three episodes of which are now streaming) aims to be just that. The series, directed by I, Tonya‘s Craig Gillespie and starring Lily James and Sebastian Stan as the Baywatch actress and the Mötley Crüe drummer, chronicles the fallout from the couple’s infamous stolen sex tape and highlights the double standard to which Anderson was subjected. (The tape only helped Lee’s image as a cool-guy rock star with a giant dick, while Anderson was slut-shamed and made into a late-night punchline as her career took a significant hit.) Its heart is in the right place; James’s Anderson is definitely the most likable character on the show, and Pam & Tommy goes out of its way to reiterate that she was a victim of a heinous crime — what we’d call “revenge porn” nowadays. But what happens when the woman whose trauma is at the heart of the story wants nothing to do with it?

There’s a fine line between offering up a critical reevaluation of someone and exploiting their pain for your own gain, and it’s one that Pam & Tommy unfortunately steps over on a few occasions. Anderson herself was not at all involved in the making of it and did not give her permission or blessing to the project, and her friend Courtney Love recently condemned it on social media for “further causing her complex trauma.” By all accounts, Anderson would rather leave the whole fiasco in the ’90s and move on with her life.

“We particularly wanted to let Pamela Anderson know that this portrayal was very much a positive thing and that we cared a great deal about her and wanted her to know that the show loves her,” showrunner D.V. DeVincentis recently told EW. “We didn’t get a response, but considering what she’s been through and the time that we were reaching out, that was understandable.”

It is understandable, but it also presents a huge problem. How do you make a series about such a grave violation of privacy while also … violating your subject’s privacy all over again, against her wishes?

The fact that it was made without Anderson’s stamp of approval isn’t the only issue with Pam & Tommy, however. Ultimately, its fatal flaw is the amount of screentime given to Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), the porn star-turned-carpenter who stole the tape (along with everything else that was stored in a safe in Lee and Anderson’s home) as revenge for being fired and stiffed by Lee, whose home he was renovating. Presenting us with his backstory only humanizes him, and even, against our best judgment, makes us like him. He’s a hapless doofus who gets scammed out of any sex-tape profits by porn producer Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman) before finding himself in trouble with a mafia loan shark played by Andrew Dice Clay, but Rogen plays him with a certain sad charm that feels ill-advised. Why are we giving equal weight to his story if we’re supposed to be highlighting the ways he victimized Anderson?

Does it suck that Lee refused to pay Gauthier the $20,000 he owed him for the work he did on his house and held him at gunpoint when he returned to pick up his tools? Yes, absolutely. Does that at all justify Gauthier’s decision to burglarize Lee’s home and then ultimately release a private tape of him and Anderson having sex on their honeymoon without their consent? Of course not. We don’t need to see Gauthier’s attempts to reconcile with his ex-wife or learn about his complicated relationship with his father via flashbacks, and yet there they all are, making us empathize with him. Pam & Tommy was adapted from a 2014 Rolling Stone interview with Gauthier chronicling how he stole the tape, so perhaps that’s why his perspective is so heavily represented, but it feels like a massive miscalculation. Gauthier was never arrested or charged with a crime for his actions, and with the statute of limitations now lapsed, he’s free to talk about it as often as he wants. The miniseries only adds to his notoriety — which feels like an icky reward for a man who never faced any actual consequences for a sex crime that nearly derailed a woman’s career and made her life hell for years.

Tonally, the show is all over the place. At some points, it’s a zany true-crime comedy that doesn’t shy away from making Anderson and Lee the butt of the joke. (Episode 2 focuses on their infamous four-day courtship and revels in showing off all the prosthetic body parts that were applied to James and Stan. There’s also a scene that features an animatronic, talking penis voiced by Jason Mantzoukas.) At other moments, it’s a dark account of the ways Anderson was objectified, violated and abused. But the show never quite decides what it wants to be; sometimes Anderson is presented as a bimbo party-girl, and other times she’s delivering shrewd feminist observations like “Sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their body.”

Despite all this, the show is enjoyable in parts. It’s extremely well-acted, the hair and makeup teams deserve endless praise for the way they’ve managed to transform James into an uncanny Anderson, and it’s a fascinating look back at a pivotal, novel moment in the history of the internet, when a stolen celebrity sex tape could be released but take multiple years to go viral. Ultimately, however, it winds up feeling like nothing more than further exploitation that also manages to completely gloss over the six months Lee spent in jail for spousal abuse after a 1998 incident in which he physically assaulted Anderson, reducing it to one sentence projected onscreen during the epilogue. For a show that purports to be about redeeming her, Pam & Tommy sure spends an awful lot of time excusing the men who failed her.

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