As much a musing on the swift and seismic rise of tech as it is on the cult of celebrity, Pam & Tommy digs deep-ish into one of the 1990s’ definitive pop cultural moments – Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and rocker husband Tommy Lee’s infamous leaked sex tape. Filmed on their 1995 honeymoon – the pair were married after what this show suggests was a whirlwind four days of non-stop drinking in Cancun – the then-unique form of online, anonymous distribution and subsequent legal battle surrounding the tape’s unwanted release is served up in this largely entertaining eight-part series.
There are many things to enjoy about such a glossily nostalgic and bleakly slapstick take on the scandal – from a permanently pouting Lily James’ uncanny resemblance to Playboy favourite Anderson to the showrunners’ obvious dislike of the bratty, impulsive and violent Lee, who would end up in jail for spousal abuse of Anderson. Best of all is a revelatory Seth Rogen playing immaculately against type. Rather than the stoner image he’s been crafting for the past two decades, here Rogen excels as the straight man – a mulleted, sweaty vest-wearing handyman called Rand Gauthier, who steals and then sells the stolen tape on the newly minted ‘web’ as an act of vengeance after a thoroughly dickish Lee refuses to pay him for work on his tacky Malibu mansion. Nick Offerman is also perfectly sleazy as Rogen’s collaborator, porn producer Uncle Miltie.
With Anderson’s career at its height and Mötley Crüe drummer Lee’s on the wane, Pam & Tommy does a solid job of showing how the video affected both of its stars differently. Where Anderson was slut-shamed, Lee was celebrated, a polarity made all the more troublesome for its timing – coming when Anderson was attempting to transition from televisual eye candy to proper movie star with the release of her action movie Barb Wire. The show suggests the reason for that wasn’t just the godawful dreadfulness of the film, but also the tape, which lost Anderson respect from the industry while boosting the flagging career of Lee, whose hair metal heyday was at least a decade behind him.
That said, often the series finds itself tripping over its own moralising. In showing how Anderson’s body was exploited in Baywatch – with dedicated on-set runners arranging her bum cheeks to display the perfect amount of flesh to get past the censors – Pam & Tommy does the exact same thing, with regular appearances of Lily James’ naked body that border on the obsessive. But where James’ body – prosthetic enhancement to fully resemble Anderson or not – is used for titillation, nudity from Marvel star Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee is played for laughs, including a deeply bizarre scene in which he has a heart-to-heart (or should that be a head-to-head?) conversation with his own animated, animatronic penis, voiced eerily by comedian Jason Mantzoukas. Truly one of 2022’s most harrowing on-screen moments so far.
‘Pam & Tommy’ will be released on February 2 via Disney+