Pam & Tommy is available on Disney + Star from the 2nd February 2022.
The story of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee is a turbulent one. The leaked distribution of their tape arrived at precisely the wrong time for Anderson, demonstrating the World Wide Web’s technological power to connect an entire world at a (few) moments’ notice. It eclipsed her whole life, described by Anderson and close friends like Courtney Love as something that “destroyed my friend Pamela’s life. Utterly.”
Therefore, one wonders what possible angle Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen could take that would validate excavating this story and retelling it for the world. Given director Craig Gillespie’s track record of complex female stories with I, Tonya and Cruella, he’s no stranger to taking villains and reconfiguring our perception of them. However, with Pam & Tommy, he’s doing something different: this is an attempt to reclaim the life of Pamela Anderson and restore her legacy by exposing the self-proclaimed love of her life as the true source of her pain and anguish.
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Although Pam & Tommy has no out-and-out ‘main’ villains, it presents an interesting dichotomy between the portrayed bad actor of the original story and perhaps the real one hiding in plain sight. Stan’s Tommy Lee is a volatile man-child with a severe case of narcissism, making microscopic alterations to assert dominance over Seth Rogen’s Rand Gauthier before eventually firing them for no reason. As a result, Gauthier’s actions are presented as a desperate last act that emerges from Lee’s act of exploitation. This is an intriguing route to retelling this story, one that reframes Tommy Lee as the impetus for Pamela’s trauma. Exploitation begets exploitation.
However, despite Gauthier’s sympathetic framing as the working man done wrong, he nonetheless remains complicit in the collective male objectification and commodification of women as sex objects. Much of Pam & Tommy is told from Pamela’s perspective, especially in the sudden development of their infatuation. Gillespie dedicates his second episode to the rapidly-sprouting seeds of their love story, contrasting our first impressions of Tommy against Pamela’s. Here she sees the best and most dedicated version of himself, with little of the toxic displays of dominance and whiny narcissism Rand was subjected to.
It’s like watching two teenagers fall in love, both sparked by an extreme infatuation that’s papered over weakly by lust. Even in these introductory moments, power dynamics are at play. For example, Gillespie’s angles signal the unequal influence one has on the other, visualising the intoxicating grip Tommy has. This is Tommy Lee built-in Pamela’s image, and the emphasis Lee receives throughout the rest of the series is essential in deconstructing this façade.
Pam & Tommy — “I Love You, Tommy” – Episode 102 — Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee meet, get high and get married… all in four days. Tommy (Sebastian Stan) and Pam (Lily James), shown. (Photo by: Erin Simkin)
The men of Pam & Tommy are truly repugnant, depicted as hypocritical ‘nice guys’, narcissistic man-children, decadent perverts and violent vigilantes. They all share the same ambition: to become desired and necessary; ironically, they want to be Pamela Anderson. The show continually foregrounds Pamela’s attempt to defend herself against an echo chamber of male oppression and patriarchal objectification. In a rare, pure moment, Pam and Tommy share a duet from My Fair Lady, the metaphor clear – she is the Fair Lady of Pam & Tommy.
Anderson’s story is just one in a long line of influential female figures who were brutally oppressed and objectified – Marilyn Monroe comes to mind, as does Jane Fonda, who’s mentioned as Pamela’s idol. Both were multifaceted figures vilified by the media for breaking out of their rigid personas, something Pamela battles throughout the show even before the wide release of the infamous tape.
Gillespie’s energic and playful direction keep things lively and electric throughout. But it’s Lake Bell’s intimate, vulnerable approach that genuinely encapsulates the poison at the heart of Anderson’s fame and relationship. Here Bell directs two more restrained, introspective glimpses into Pamela’s life with The Master Beta and Pamela in Wonderland. The latter, an empathetic portrait of Pamela’s life, condensed into a cinematic snapshot. Framed through a deposition, we glimpse into Pamela’s past. Here Bell’s decision to link back and forth between Pamela’s history and its aggressive reinterpretation by the deposition demonstrates how the tape didn’t just poison her present and future but also infected her past.
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Lily James is transformative as she battles the vicious attacks with a fractured quiver in her voice, her gaze emitting a thousand words. Trust me; you have never seen Lily James like this before; her portrayal is masterful and empathetic as she effortlessly captures the tiniest idiosyncrasies. Here James is bewitching, and it’s hard to believe that it’s not Pamela Anderson on screen.
Ultimately, this is a story of the toxicity of misogyny, revealing the individual who places Pamela Anderson in the crossfire: Tommy Lee. Lee attempts to comfort Pam by telling her, “we’re in this together” – except the world remembers it as Pamela Anderson’s tape. We get a glimpse into Tommy’s perspective that reveals how he felt wronged by his tragedy of being forgotten. Here Motley Crue is not what it once was, and he knows that – it’s part of the reason Lee seems to resent Pamela silently.
This contradiction is further exposed as Tommy accepts the label of a big dick pornstar while Pamela is called a whore, slut, prostitute and sexual deviant. In a male-dominated world, it’s cool for Tommy Lee to have sex on camera but not Pamela Anderson. The savouring of the momentary fame Tommy enjoys at the expense of Pamela underlines who he truly is: a narcissistic fame-chaser more obsessed with his self-image and celebrity than his partner’s wellbeing. He and all the men represented in Pam & Tommy are misogynistic man-children who become enraged when Pamela Anderson doesn’t fulfil the status of an obedient sex object.
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Pam & Tommy is not a perfect show – there is a level of sensationalism, particularly in Gillespie’s first three episodes, that undermines the emotional vulnerability he hopes to reclaim. In addition, some moments like Lee’s talking animatronic penis feel like a step too far as they risk disrupting the thematic flow of the show. Meanwhile, while it’s a very fun and, at times, wild ride, it also doesn’t ease us into what’s intended as an empathetic retelling. Given the highly contrasting sensibility of his episodes to Lake Bell’s, alongside the all-male team of creatives (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, Craig Gillespie, Robert D. Siegel), it’s clear that having a sustained female perspective is essential in telling a story like this, especially around such systemically ingrained issues like misogyny, exploitation and objectification.
Pam & Tommy is undoubtedly the wildest love story you’ve ever heard of, but it’s so much more than that. Through Lily James’ bewitchingly life-like Pamela and its detailed interrogation of celebrity, privacy and systemic misogyny, it draws an empathetic portrait of the salvation of a figure vilified by the media and those closest to her, merely for daring to be herself.
Through Lily James’ bewitchingly life-like Pamela and its detailed interrogation of celebrity, privacy and systemic misogyny, it draws an empathetic portrait of the salvation of a figure vilified by the media and those closest to her.