Exploitation is in Vogue in 'Pam & Tommy'
If you know me personally, you’d know that I firmly believe that Seth Rogen is one of the most creative and multi-talented masterminds working in the industry today. He’s a gifted comedic actor who can do more serious work like 2015’s Steve Jobs and 2017’s The Disaster Artist. He even created a successful non-profit organization to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s before the age of 40. He’s achieved a lot since the dawn of the 21st century and breaking out on the hit show Freaks & Geeks. However, he doesn’t get enough credit for his work as a writer and producer. His latest venture, the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy, sees him producing and starring in a tale about the scandalous sex tape involving Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee and Baywatch actress-model Pamela Anderson.
Pam & Tommy plays as a dramedy that finds its humor in its scenario and the tragedy in its characters. Seth Rogen plays his typical schtick as a loser who’s down on his luck, Rand Gauthier. Working as a carpenter to Lee (Sebastian Stan), Rand isn't paid upfront, and, eventually, he is fired from the project he’s been working on at Lee’s mansion. Hellbent on revenge, Rand decides to break into Lee's mansion and steal a safe full of automatic rifles, expensive jewelry, and, the video that shook the world, a sex tape of him and Pamela Anderson. Having found this golden ticket to the chocolate factory, he gets help from porn producer friend Miltie (Nick Offerman) to leak the tape and get revenge on his former employer.
Once the tape is leaked, their lives are upended. Pamela is the primary victim in the scheme, and the show glosses over how she faces a downward spiral in her career with her action flick Barb Wire flopping, missing out on roles in L.A. Confidential and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and facing misogyny from Jay Leno to crew members on the set of Baywatch. As the duo deals with lawsuits and the media lurking at every corner to invade their private lives, Tommy channels his frustration into getting revenge on Rand.
Pam & Tommy perfectly encapsulates what it’s like living in the mid-90s. The time capsule pulls together VHS tapes, grunge taking over the rock music scene, gigantic computers, and Jay Leno’s hold on the nation. The nostalgia may be on a Stranger Things level in your face, but the showrunners and writers put a lot of thought into building the atmosphere. The era is a self-aware backdrop that provokes audiences to consider how much bigger this scandal would’ve been had it been released today.
The acting in Pam & Tommy is its primary selling point. Seth Rogen is funny as always, but Sebastian Stan and Lily James shine as the titular characters. Stan perfectly captures Tommy Lee’s controversial bad boy. He’s not a very likable guy – he’s always been a figure of controversy as a member of Mötley Crüe, one of the wildest rock bands in history – but his band isn’t fazed by the scandal, and Lee oftentimes lets it get to his head and brags about it. In the show, we see Mötley Crüe as they are caught in the crosshairs of relevancy as the sound of rock music has changed from heavy metal of their heyday to a more grungy sound heard from acts such as Third Eye Blind, Beck, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana.
There’s a scene where Lee confronts Third Eye Blind for taking their recording studio and Stan's untamed fury about his replacement by an up-and-coming band channels Lee to a tee. He wants the hype train Mötley Crüe had in the 80s to keep going, but it’s not as easy as he and the band think it is. They have a distinct heavy metal sound, but in the mid-90s, it’s old news; listeners prefer something more acoustic and grim. Stan takes inspiration from the angst of the rockstar and the era in general in his most memorable turn yet.
Stan's counterpart James underwent a considerable transformation to become Pamela Anderson. When a lawyer is questioning her about the tape, James holds nothing back in depicting how uncomfortable Anderson is with her privacy being exposed. She doesn’t tear up, but for all the makeup she sports, her display of raw emotion is astounding. There are also moments where she’s approached about the scandal head-on in a press conference and on Jay Leno’s show where she tries to divert from it, but, of course, it just circles back around to her humiliation.
James’ Anderson is famous at a time in history when celebrity culture was just starting to be controlled by the whim of the public, who can be cruel at times. She embodies everything Anderson stands for as a symbol of empowerment rendered powerless by the media's coverage of the fallout. She nails the impersonation from the body language to the Baywatch star's sweet voice. Stan and James’ chemistry is undeniable – Pamela has a genuine personality despite how society might view her –and she is the cool yin to Tommy’s wild yang.
Although the acting is a high point, the writing and tone are inconsistent throughout the series. Going into episode three, I believed that Rand and Miltie would exploit the tape together, but Miltie abandons Rand in the fourth episode and isn’t heard from again. In fact, in the real story, Rand reaches out to all of his connections in the porn industry, not just Uncle Miltie. It would’ve been more effective if we had gotten another scene where he talked to Rand or Butchie, a crime boss played by Andrew Dice Clay. Unfortunately, in the last two or three episodes, all we get from Miltie is a scene where Rand tries calling him after he fled to Amsterdam.
The show also suggests that Rand received compensation for selling the original sex tape to a Seattle entrepreneur, but he didn't. The script's comedy relies heavily on how bizarre and invasive the situation is for the characters. The comedic aspects of the show are derived from poking fun at Rand for his beta-male social status and his filthy apartment. Almost every episode had a different writer, and if they stuck with the same one or two for the whole run, the writing might've been more coordinated from episode to episode.
Despite its quirks in cohesion, Pam & Tommy is entertaining, and for a series so intent on depicting 90s celebrity culture of a bygone era, that's probably enough. It proves that celebrities are human like the rest of us and deserve a private life that isn’t for the whole world to know about. However, given Anderson's disapproval of the show, a question must be asked. Does the show bring Pamela Anderson back to the limelight in a positive way, or does it make things worse? If there is any takeaway, it's that Anderson was an unnecessary target when this tape was exposed. She should’ve been treated better.