Pam & Tommy review: Disney+ Pamela Anderson biopic reveals the private suffering behind the public scandal

Lily James stars in this true-crime drama about Pamela Anderson’s stolen sex tape

Lily James as Pamela Anderson (Credit: Hulu/Disney+)

The first episode of Pam & Tommy focuses almost entirely on carpenter/electrician Rand Gauthier.

Gauthier, played by Seth Rogen, is easy to like and easier to feel sorry for. He’s a down-on-his-luck contractor, doing his best to navigate the volatile temper of fickle rockstar Tommy Lee – one minute, the Motley Crue drummer wants his bed fixed to the floor, next he wants it ten inches to the left, then he wants a complex hydraulics system installed for a brand-new waterbed. He insists money is no object, but he hasn’t paid Gauthier in weeks, and he’s quick to threaten violence (and then laugh the whole thing off) when Gauthier presses him about the finances. Between Seth Rogen’s everyman charm – and, crucially, decades of comic roles that have already endeared him to audiences – and Sebastian Stan’s commitment to playing Lee as obnoxiously as possible, the karmic moment where Gauthier eventually masterminds a heist and steals Lee’s safe feels nothing short of triumphant.

Pamela Anderson (Lily James) barely features in the first episode of Pam and Tommy, seen only very briefly in stolen sideways glances and scratchy videotape footage. Really, she’s an afterthought, scarcely warranting the slightest consideration in this opening conflict between a beleaguered contractor and his horrible boss.

Therein lies the sleight of hand that Pam & Tommy is built around. The series is trying to walk quite a careful line, and does so with mixed results: it opens by inviting viewers to sympathise with Gauthier and to understand its title characters only in terms of their public image, and then spends its later episodes sifting through that initial impression and trying to deconstruct and critique it. On one level, there’s something quite intelligent about that choice, much as it opens the true crime biopic up to being easily misunderstood. On another level, it’ll understandably give some viewers pause, particularly given the real Anderson’s much-publicised disapproval of the project.

In either case, it’s not really a surprise that the show has proved as polarising as it has – there’s an inescapable tension to the true crime biopic as it tries to weave its two shows together.

Lily James as Pamela Anderson and Sebastian Stan as Tommy Lee (Credit: Hulu/Disney+)

For the most part, though, it works. The series quickly convinces that it’s a story worth telling – both for what it has to say about privacy, consent, and celebrity at the dawn of the early internet, and in depicting a crime that occurred at a point when the cultural language to articulate it didn’t really exist yet – and its structure pays dividends in subverting any preconceptions the audience might’ve brought with them.

The contrast between the second episode, I Love You Tommy, and sixth, Pamela in Wonderland, is striking. The former (directed by I, Tonya’s Craig Gillespie) is all about Anderson and Lee’s whirlwind romance, from a chance encounter in a nightclub to a joyously debauched holiday in Mexico; it’s all glitz and glamour, full of hyperstylised sex scenes that are visibly fake even by television standards, leaning into and embracing the most superficial understanding of the Baywatch star and her rock and roll husband. James is coquettish and ditzy, while Stan is full of bravado and oddly magnetic – they’re clearly ill-matched (and the series gets some good jokes out of their fumbling attempts to get to know one another after their marriage and honeymoon) but at the same time, they make a certain sort of sense together.

Pamela in Wonderland is worlds apart from its predecessor. It’s a much more restrained piece – a shorter runtime, fewer locations, more simply directed – focusing on Pamela Anderson’s deposition. The legal battle around the leaked sex tape has escalated; she’s being forced to answer questions on the record about her public and private life, about her modelling career and about her relationships, about her sex life and her body. It’s invasive and humiliating, and director Hannah Fidell doesn’t shy away from that, dwelling on how painful the whole process is for Anderson. James, meanwhile, gives her best performance in the role in that episode; the world has long since lurched out from underneath Anderson, and she’s just desperate to get the whole thing over with, brittle and dejected but never even slightly surprised at what’s happening.

That push and pull – between the public and private Pamela Anderson – is the spine of Pam and Tommy. In a way, it has to be: you can’t add depth to a story that’s been treated as a punchline without allowing for the fact that some people are going to remember the joke. It opens encouraging the audience to side with Rand Gauthier for the express purpose of pulling that sympathy apart bit by bit, laying bare just how entitled, obtuse, and essentially violent his actions were. (The series flirts with redemption for Gauthier towards the end; while it largely eschews that, you do also get the sense that some of the subtle touches there might’ve been too subtle, and some viewers really will leave Pam & Tommy feeling bad for Gauthier, which is hardly ideal.)

It’s not flawless. There’s the same sort of softening you get with any biopic – Anderson and Lee’s relationship was, in truth, much more volatile (and violent) than depicted here, to the point that Lee’s arrest for domestic abuse needed more than a closing explanatory caption. (That omission is the drama’s most substantial flaw, really, threatening to undercut a lot of its more well-meaning commentary.) But it is often quite intelligent, and certainly watchable throughout - even if its central subversion doesn’t completely work for every viewer, Pam & Tommy is worth watching to see a drama try and walk a careful line and mostly succeed.

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