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Hulu’s Abysmal Pam & Tommy Is at Its Worst When Paying Lip Service to Feminism

5 minute read

When the news broke, in 2020, that Disney-owned Hulu was making a miniseries about Pamela Anderson, Tommy Lee and the purloined sex tape that shook the world, it came as a bit of a surprise. The platform had always been the streaming home for the company’s R-rated fare, but it seemed doubtful that Disney would be bold enough to do justice to a triple-X premise. Well, as a chorus of pre-release headlines trumpeting the fictionalized Lee’s animatronic talking penis confirmed, that particular worry was misplaced. And it turns out that the problems with Pam & Tommy go far beyond a shortage (or surplus) of raunch.

The best thing this frustrating crime caper has going for it is its cast. Sebastian “Winter Soldier” Stan captures the manic machismo of Mötley Crüe drummer Lee in full, chaotic flower. If Lily James, the British period drama stalwart, leans into Anderson’s breathy ditziness to an extent that feels slightly mean, at least she makes an astonishing physical transformation into the Baywatch star. (The show’s hair and makeup deserve all the awards.) Seth Rogen, who developed the project with producing partner Evan Goldberg and writer Robert Siegel, dons a mullet as Rand Gauthier, the down-and-out carpenter who steals the couple’s honeymoon video after Tommy pushes him too far. Nick Offerman, Taylor Schilling and The White Lotus breakout Fred Hechinger round out Rand’s smut-saturated L.A. milieu.

There’s certainly more to this story, which figured prominently in the rise of internet pornography and presaged recent legal battles over revenge porn, than even many of us who were sentient at the time are aware. Some of it is even worth telling. But the show is wildly inconsistent, swinging from fratty exploitation romp to revisionist buzzkill to dramatized Wikipedia entry without bothering to smooth out the transitions. The central couple can come off as reasonably intelligent and reflective or deeply stupid and shallow. In some scenes, Tommy is a tender, loving, overgrown boy, blindsided by the rise of alt-rock and sensitive about Crüe’s fall from the top of the charts; in others, he’s a raging psychopath.

Based on a 2014 Rolling Stone feature, Pam & Tommy also stretches a short movie’s worth of material to eight episodes of up to an hour apiece. The Lees’ 96-hour courtship is rendered in such minute detail that it almost seems to unfold in real time. One of three episodes directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) opens with a seemingly interminable sequence in which Rand and adult entertainment icon Uncle Miltie (Offerman) pitch the tape to studio after litigation-averse studio. I guess it’s apt that the show fits Umberto Eco’s famous definition of porn: “If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.”

Jane Fonda
Nick Offerman, left, and Seth Rogen in 'Pam & Tommy'Kelsey McNeal/Hulu

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What pushes Pam & Tommy from inane, inconsistent but occasionally fun trifle into a more cynical realm is, ironically, its intermittent attempts to view the saga through a feminist lens. Midway through the series, after Rand and Miltie start selling copies of the tape online, the mostly male producing team brings in a few credible female storytellers, including writer Sarah Gubbins (Better Things) and director Lake Bell, to weigh the scandal’s disproportionate impact on Pam. Suddenly, a character heretofore depicted as a simpering bimbo is issuing such searing third-wave critiques as: “sluts don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their bodies.”

The show’s creators may have been genuinely moved to give Anderson, who reportedly finds its existence “very painful” and resisted invitations to participate, her due. But even if that’s the case, their jumble of characterizations and tones—not to mention the laziness of churning out such a shoddy retelling of her public humiliation—does her a disservice. The same goes for the choice to paint the couple’s marriage as a whirlwind romance and relegate the six months Lee served in prison after pleading no contest to felony spousal battery charges to onscreen text.

Pam & Tommy is the kind of story that’s almost impossible to tell in the post-#MeToo era—one that combines the cheap pleasures of trash culture with a sober accounting of systemic misogyny. Rogen and his collaborators would not have been wrong to fear a backlash to a lighter, more glib depiction of Anderson’s ordeal. But what they’ve made instead is a cowardly compromise that, talking phallus and all, seems bound to disappoint viewers of every stripe.

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