It was huge tabloid fodder in the mid-90s that seemed part freak show, part celebration of the excess of the 90s. Bad boy Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee married Baywatch star Pamela Anderson. Motley Crue were past their prime by the time the two hooked up - their glam metal no longer in fashion, having been replaced by an audience hunger for grunge and the rise of the alt-music scene of the early 90s. Meanwhile Pamela Anderson was a huge deal - the large breasted Playboy model-turned actor was unquestionably the reason lukewarm beach rescue show Baywatch became the world’s most-watched show. It wasn’t that she was talented - but the screen captured a sense of her as a kinda-sweet girl next door who also looked every bit the sexed-up fantasy of a crass 14 year-old teenage boy.
The marriage was quite literally the union of sex and rock ‘n roll.
When a sex tape leaked of the two, it wasn’t seen as scandalous at the time - instead it felt just like a natural extension of the narrative that surrounded them and their relationship as seen through trashy weekly gossip mags on a weekly basis.
These are big, colorful characters with a provocative story. But is that necessarily enough to sustain an 8-episode serialized drama? Three episodes in, I’m not sure I have the answer to that. But I do know that the show has my wife and I transfixed by the screen for the last three nights in a row as we’ve been watching new Hulu drama Pam & Tommy.
The show is initially seen from the perspective of Rand Gauthier, an electrician who is on the edge of financial ruin after Tommy Lee refuses to pay for costly work done at his house. Angered by the experience, he breaks into the home of Lee and Anderson and comes away with the infamous tape of them. Using his connections in the sleazy porn industry, he is an early Internet pioneer in selling tapes of the recording online. Rand is portrayed in the series by Seth Rogen. And an interesting bit of trivia about Rand - his father was former Broadway actor Dick Gautier who is best known for playing robot Hymie in the 60s version of Get Smart.
But we see other perspectives in the show as well. The relationship between Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson is actually depicted as really sweet and fun. They’re larger than life people, but the show grounds them surprisingly well with some really nice moments. There’s one scene in the third episode where Pamela comes home after a professionally disappointing day on set where Tommy Lee has cooked up a feast of greek food to celebrate his heritage with his wife. As they eat and talk, it’s sweet to hear Tommy Lee telling his wife about his family, but all the while it just highlights the oddity of the two of them having gotten married so quickly and never having even met each others families.
It isn’t as though the story of the Pamela Anderson / Tommy Lee sex tape needed to be told, but how many stories ever need to be told? Instead what we have here is a morally dubious incident captured on screen. Director Craig Gillespie brings a similar approach to what he did with I, Tonya, with a grounded, verging on documentary style to the filmmaking. Only here it is filmed with the same glossy sheen that would not have felt out of place on a TV in the 90s.
What does feel out of place is watching the show on Disney+, which is where it is streaming outside of the US. This is a show that doesn’t shy away from copious amounts of graphic sex on screen - there’s an extensive sex montage in the second episode that really goes for it. There’s also an oddball scene with Tommy Lee in an extended conversation with his penis that has the same anthropomorphised qualities one expects from a Pixar movie.
It is co-showrunners D.V. DeVincentis and Robert Siegel who hold this show together. DeVincentis you may know as a screenwriter on the movies High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank, but he also wrote several episodes of American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson. Meanwhile Siegel is the writer of films like The Wrestler and The Founder. Neither are strangers to this sort of biography-work and the two are surprisingly deft at finding the humanity in a show that seemingly has a flimsy sense of value to begin with.
Pam & Tommy isn’t high art, but it is far smarter and savvier than it seems at the outset. As an audience, we are always complicit of rubbernecking when it comes to watching biography films. Even the loftiest of productions has us staring in and revelling in the misfortunes and tragedies of other people’s lives. Only here we are asked to stare into the lives of two people who the audience simply doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for from the outset - mix in the crudity of the sex depicted on screen, along with the ick-factor of the home video porn industry, and it’ll leave some viewers feeling uncomfortable about spending time with this story. And that seems to very much be the point.
Pam & Tommy is streaming now on Hulu in the US and Disney+ internationally.