Even people who didn’t like Baywatch stuck around for its opening credits. Blame it on Pamela Anderson, an iconically zaftig blonde who wore a red lifeguard swimsuit as she ran into the waves in devilishly slow-motion. It was the most watched series around the world, with over a billion viewers every week. Swimsuits didn’t need subtitles, and neither did Anderson.
Pamela Anderson went viral before we knew what that meant. In 1995—when the World Wide Web was so unfamiliar that parts of it almost worked like the dark web does today—a videotape filmed privately by Anderson and her husband (Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee) was stolen and distributed across the internet. The tape was 54 minutes long but the infamous bit featured eight minutes of sex shot during the couple’s honeymoon.
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A salacious new Hulu series Pam & Tommy (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) explores this culturally significant moment: A sex-tape captures a nation’s imagination while a performer struggling to grow beyond her glamorous image is waylaid by the theft of a deeply private video. Created by Robert Siegel and directed primarily by Craig Gillespie, Pam & Tommy is a critique of the theft, the media circus, the sexism Anderson faced and her devastating loss of privacy.
Except—made, much like the videotape, without Anderson’s consent or financial involvement—Pam & Tommy is as exploitative as the stolen tape. It might even make more money.
I am all for reclaiming narratives and building a conversation around moments we, as a culture, got wrong but Pam & Tommy is embarrassingly lurid and gratuitous. It features considerably more sex than the tape itself, performed by someone wearing a prosthetic chest-plate to mimic Anderson’s famous bosom. Therefore the actor playing Anderson isn’t even putting her own body on the line, but a facsimile of the real thing. The only person being stripped of dignity is Anderson herself—and she was never given a choice. Not then, not now.
This feels like a greater shame because the series is, in itself, quite entertaining, featuring a star turn from Seth Rogen as Rand Gauthier, the electrician who had stolen the videotape. Sebastian Stan plays Lee, while English actor Lily James plays Anderson. Gillespie, director of Cruella and I, Tonya, swishes through the first three episodes, all whimsical crash-zooms and unsubtle visual metaphors. The lines are clever and the actors are having an infectiously good time. Like I said, it’s a shame.
James is a versatile actor—Downton Abbey, Baby Driver, The Pursuit Of Love—and while the make-up and prosthetics are excellent (her lips look uncannily like Anderson’s), the performance itself is somewhat Saturday Night Live, too exaggeratedly twee, too breathy, too lip-bite-y. The voice is particularly over-mimicked, as if Anderson had no off-camera voice. I interviewed Anderson many years ago, and found her self-aware and dry-witted, someone who wielded her “dumb blonde” persona like a dagger. James plays her as if someone playing Marilyn Monroe took all their vocal cues from Some Like It Hot.
When silent, however, James conveys Anderson’s vulnerability, and in some moments—one where, say, she flaps her hand in exasperation after her monologue has been cut by the Baywatch directors—she blurs the line startlingly well.
Sebastian’s Lee is an entertaining idiot, and while his all-body tattoos seem glisteningly painted on, the actor gets the legendary twirl of the drumstick and the slackness of the drummer’s jaw right. The line “You make Jenna Jameson look like a 4” is, bizarrely enough, part of Lee’s marriage proposal, and Sebastian has enough charm to pull it off.
Rogen is smashing as the man who stole the tape, a handyman who considers himself an inventor and dreams of making a microwave—but to cool things down instantly. “Ice cubes, gazpacho. The applications are virtually limitless,” he says. This put-upon and tormented blue-collar guy is the closest thing Pam & Tommy has to a hero, and the show keeps wanting to humanise him. (In the magazine article the series is based on, Gauthier is a sick loser who shows no remorse but the show keeps offering him redemption. Maybe because Rogen is also producing it.)
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Either way, Rogen slays it. Thinner and looking visibly younger, there’s something special about the way he says lines like, “Waterbed is not a metaphor, man.” The show’s best performances come from him and Nick Offerman’s sleazy and fascinating pornographer Uncle Miltie.
The real Gauthier is himself intriguingly complicated, a man preferred by porn actresses for anal sequences because of his diminutive penis — who went on to make Tommy Lee’s penis the talk of the town.
Pam & Tommy goes a step further: it makes Tommy Lee’s penis talk to Tommy Lee. It’s an animated sequence that wants to shock but, really, has no witty punchline. This series is never subtle — the first time Lee’s (prosthetic) member is shown, there is a statue of Michelangelo’s David behind him, for scale — but while groaning at the talking genitalia I wondered if any nudity was necessary.
Wouldn’t it have been cooler to make a show about Pamela Anderson’s sextape without actually showing Pamela Anderson having sex? To make this show without showing her shirtless at all—instead of as often as is humanly possible? I am convinced this evil series will only lead to more people seeking out the original tape.
Pam & Tommy typifies an increasing voyeuristic trend of telling lurid tales through the lens of artistry and cultural commentary. Within weeks of this show’s success, an Anna Nicole Smith project has been announced. Surely Paris Hilton will be next. We are consuming their lives as rapaciously as the tabloids did, but because the camerawork is nicer, we are pretending to examine, not leer.
I’d request those curious about Pam & Tommy to behave like its producers. If ever there was a series that deserved only to be downloaded illegally, it’s this one.
Streaming Tip Of The Week:
The Oscar nominations were announced, and several nominated films are streaming in India: The Power Of The Dog(Netflix), CODA (Apple TV+), Don’t Look Up (Netflix), Spencer (BookMyShow Stream), The Tragedy Of Macbeth (Apple TV+), The Lost Daughter (Netflix), Tick Tick Boom (Netflix) and Dune (BookMyShow Stream).
Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.