In 1995, Pamela Anderson’s star was soaring. A Playboy centrefold regular and Saturday-night fixture on TV as CJ Parker in Baywatch, she was surely the most wanted woman in the world. Yet her hopes and ambitions of becoming a serious actress were dashed with the release in 1997 of a sex tape – starring her and her new husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. Stolen from the couple’s home by a disgruntled contractor, the video went from underground bootleg-VHS curiosity to full-blown global sensation when it eventually landed on the internet.
Based on a Rolling Stone article published in 2016, this highly anticipated release seems an unlikely show to be streaming on Disney+ – especially once episode two gets underway and audiences are party to numerous full-frontal scenes as Lee and Anderson get together for the first time.
But before that, we’re given a little background. Episode one is unsubtly titled ‘Drilling & Pounding’ and its opening scene shows a hot-under-the-collar carpenter rhythmically using his nail gun to the beat of the titular pair having ear-shattering sex upstairs. The handyman in question is Rand Gauthier (played by series producer, Seth Rogen). Playing a down-on-his-luck regular joe to a tee, Rogen takes viewers on a journey as Rand transforms from underpaid joiner to heist master. Following a series of increasingly squirm-inducing meetings between Rand and Tommy (who’s either wearing nothing but a thong, toting a gun, or both), Rand is unceremoniously ejected from Tommy’s mansion, having worked for months with no pay. Furious and skint, he decides to wrestle back the money owed through stealthier means, launching into a surveillance operation any CIA agent would be proud of.
Crime committed, Rand revels in his loot. It’s only later he realises that among the cash, guns and jewellery, he has something much more valuable in his possession – the now-infamous sex tape, filmed during Pam and Tommy’s honeymoon. It seems fortuitous that Rand happens to have connections in the porn industry. Soon, he’s paying Uncle Miltie (played sleazily by a lank-haired Nick Offerman) a visit on set, and a plan is hatched to release the video via VHS. Rand’s revenge is set in motion.
All this happens before we get under the skin of Anderson. Aside from a shot of her licking Tommy’s face as she leaves their mansion in a convertible, Anderson is a background character. Episode two brings her – and Lily James’s impressive breast plate – into focus. We’ll admit that when we learned James (best known for playing gentle characters such as Cinderella or Lady Rose in Downton Abbey) would be playing one of the world’s most famous sex sirens, we were puzzled. But from the off, she is utterly convincing. The rumoured daily four hours in hair and make-up have really paid off: she looks the part – from her 34DDs to the 90s brows and blow-dry – but, crucially, has Anderson’s shy-sounding Canadian accent down. The release of the sex tape undeniably derailed Anderson’s life and marriage, and ruined her career, and James’ portrayal is sensitive to that, making Anderson a charming, innocent protagonist as the media circus circles.
Then there’s Marvel star Sebastian Stan’s Tommy. In further kudos to the costume and make-up teams on the show, blonde and beardy Stan has been utterly transformed into tattooed Tommy. His hair is absolutely on point and his pierced nipples are as ever present as the bottles of booze he swigs from. And anyone who’s read anything about this series will have heard all about Tommy’s animatronic talking penis (yes, really), which has a starring role in episode two. It’s only the start of February, but surely this is TV’s most WTF moment of 2022? Regardless, it’s shocking, surreal and demonstrates the dark humour that undercuts all eight episodes. And Stan’s Tommy really does tread the line between charisma, excess and menace, making the couple’s nuptials – held on a Mexican beach four days after they meet – seem utterly plausible.
While Pam & Tommy isn’t the best show you’ll watch this year, it’s a fascinating exploration of exploitation and the rise of tabloid scrutiny on celebrity couples. However, it’s James who really makes this series a success. While episode one barely shows Pam, and episode two focuses on the surreal and explicit nature of her and Tommy’s early days, it’s from the third episode onwards that viewers really settle into the story and begin to witness something a little deeper. James’s Anderson shows she’s much more than a pair of breasts and mass of blonde hair. Consent, sex shaming and internet porn are all issues still being tackled today, and Anderson was one of the first to have experienced all three in an extremely public way back in the 90s. Everyone might be talking about Tommy’s talking penis, but the real conversation should start with Anderson’s exploitation.
Episodes 1-3 of Pam & Tommy are available to watch on Disney+ from today. New episodes stream weekly.