Pam & Tommy Is the Kind of Sharp, Funny, Class-Conscious Satire We Need

In Pam & Tommy, the story of the infamous Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape becomes an epic tale of thwarted American dreams.

Lily James playing Pamela Anderson in the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy. (Hulu)

I’ve been enjoying Pam & Tommy, the eight-episode biographical comedy-drama currently running on Hulu. It’s about Pamela Anderson (Lily James) and her then-husband, Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan), during the late 1990s brouhaha surrounding the unauthorized release of their honeymoon sex tape onto the then-relatively unexplored territory of the “World Wide Web.”

A schlubby ex-contractor named Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), fired by Lee in a rock-star snit after weeks of uncompensated work on Anderson and Lee’s “fucking futuristic state-of-the-art-love-pad” in Malibu, is the one who sets in motion the vengeful releasing of the tape, and then pays dearly for it by immediately getting in way over his head.

Director Craig Gillespie is reunited here with kinetic Sebastian Stan, who also played the hapless husband of Tonya Harding in Gillespie’s terrific satirical black comedy I, Tonya (2017). That one was about the Tonya Harding knee-capping scandal that rocked the world of figure skating and entertained the multitudes back in 1994.

Pam & Tommy loosely follows the same template as I, Tonya. Both excavate the sordid details surrounding scandals which tie niche celebrities, who are famous but also widely mocked and disrespected, to the despised “lower depths” of American culture. In these films, struggling working-class Americans are maddened by their unlikely proximity to stardom, and start acting on their wild fantasies about how to hang onto that proximity, or else parlay it into their own version of making it in America.

The first episode of the series aligns us with the point of view of Rand Gauthier, doing carpentry work with his crew downstairs in Anderson and Lee’s house, listening to the notorious couple having raucous sex upstairs hour after hour. Jaded and resentful, they find themselves hammering in rhythm to the familiar sounds. Periodically Lee appears in their midst wearing nothing but his tats and piercings and thong underwear, to check on their progress and tell them that he’s changed his mind yet again about where the huge, elaborately constructed platform for the bed should go.

Endlessly ripping out work and redoing it might not be so bad if Lee were actually paying them, but somehow even while shouting “Money is no object!” at them, he never gets around to ponying up. Meanwhile, Gauthier and his contractor partner Lonnie (Larry Brown) go ever deeper into debt.

Then in a fit of celebrity pique, Lee fires the whole crew, without paying what he owes them. To top it off, when Gauthier returns to pick up his tools, Lee refuses to part with them. He pulls a gun on Gauthier and orders him off the property. Apparently, a version of these events actually happened, if you believe the 2014 Rolling Stone piece the series is based on.

Gauthier’s motivation for getting back at Lee is so thoroughly established, you have to root for him when he first breaks into the house. Because he set up the house’s security system himself, Gauthier knows how to work around it. This includes tying a white fur rug onto his own back and crawling onto the grounds under the level the cameras will pick up, because even if he’s spotted, the camera optics are so grainy, he’ll pass as the couple’s sheepdog. (Again, it seems that the white rug was really part of Gauthier’s actual break-in.)

Initially, it seems, the idea was just to steal Anderson and Lee’s safe, figuring that the valuables inside — probably just cash and jewelry — would make up for the money and time lost on the job.

“You mean it’s compensatory,” says Lonnie, trying to decide whether to throw in with Gauthier on this mission. “The word is ‘compatory,’” says Gauthier. The next shot is of a dictionary entry showing that the correct word is actually compensatory.

It’s this kind of lively, irreverent approach to the material that makes Pam & Tommy such a welcome series. There are no saintly characters here. Everybody’s floundering in the sordid mess of American culture, and all the lead figures are appalling (and appealing) and poignant (and ludicrous).

Gauthier has righteous class rage on his side, plus an outsider’s longing to do better than his current lonely and grubby life. But on the other hand, he’s a pedantic idiot who fancies himself an “amateur theologist.” And he can’t seem to face crucial realities — he’s still in love with his low-level porn star ex-wife, Erica (Taylor Schilling), who’s long since moved on to a seemingly solid relationship with a woman. But he continues to court her with flowers, dinners, and hints of the immense fortune he’ll soon be making from some mysterious venture of his.

The second episode of the series flashes back to show us the origins of the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee romance, which lasted four whole days before they got married. We switch to Anderson’s point of view as she goes clubbing in Los Angeles, a “girls night out” that begins with her declaration, “No more bad boys.” It seems her unfortunate exes already included actor Scott Baio and Bret Michaels of the hair metal band Poison. Then she meets Tommy Lee, who promptly licks the side of her face from jaw to temple, and it’s love at first sight.

But for all of Anderson’s poor impulse control and vinyl minidress excesses, she’s portrayed sympathetically as a wistful figure, desperate to prove herself as more than just the star of Baywatch, forever dashing into and out of the water in her famous red bathing suit. In one scene, a whole production team consults intently on how much Andersonian butt cheek the wardrobe assistant can expose before the shot will be “flagged” by the censors. But Anderson’s monologue, one she worked hard to prepare for, gets summarily cut on the day she’s supposed to shoot it — the director decides that the scene is more powerful “wordless.”

On the basis of such routine humiliations, Anderson’s career is soaring as Lee’s wanes. Mötley Crüe’s platinum record days are long gone by 1995, and the ebbing of his career is illustrated in several ways, including a scene in which his band rehearsal in shunted from Studio A to Studio B, leading to a confrontation with Third Eye Blind, the new band occupying the star space. Mötley Crüe’s John Corabi, the band’s frontman at that time, has been tweeting furiously about this supposed encounter, which as he puts it, “DID NOT HAPPEN…!!” Pam & Tommy show creator and executive producer Robert Siegel acknowledges that the scene is fictional, adding exuberantly, “but I like to think it absolutely could have happened!”

Which is to say this is a partly fictionalized comedy-drama. But it seems the non-fictionalized parts are even more outlandish than the fictional ones.

There are delightful performances in this series, bringing to life some of the famous and infamous people involved in this crazy saga. Adam Ray does an uncanny turn as Jay Leno, playing him as a colossal putz. Don Harvey is terrific as Anthony Pellicano, the violent goon of a private eye hired by various Hollywood people to do their seedier work. This includes Anderson and Lee, who were hoping he could recover the sex tape. But all he succeeds in doing is beating and terrorizing the hapless Gauthier, who’s already mailed copies of the tape all over the world. (Pellicano eventually wound up in prison for fraud, racketeering, wiretapping, and the possession of illegal firearms and explosives.)

Maxwell Caulfield is equally great as Bob Guccione of Penthouse, who’s so indignant when Anderson and Lee lawyer up preemptively against the possibility of images from the sex tape showing up in his magazine that he launches into a hilariously solemn declaration about First Amendment rights. The war over the tape that’s brewing between Guccione and Hugh Hefner (Mike Seely) — Anderson’s former employer in the years when she was the premiere golden girl at Playboy — is an upcoming episode to look forward to.

Nick Offerman, always a gem, is brilliant as usual as Milton “Uncle Miltie” Ingley, a porn film director and producer who helps his old pal Rand Gauthier strike a deal to make money from the tape. The backstory shows us that Gauthier had previously acted in Uncle Miltie’s films on the occasions when a small penis was preferred — one of those stunning, very much non-fictionalized parts of the series.

But Miltie and Gauthier have their work cut out for them because even the lowliest porn producer won’t touch the tape without releases from Anderson and Lee — it’s not worth the inevitable lawsuits. Only when Gauthier gets his brainstorm about this new thing called the “World Wide Web” do they see how black-market sales might be possible. But even so, the only financier who’ll take a chance is a scary mob guy named Louis “Butchie” Peraino, who’d also financed Deep Throat back in the 1970s. Andrew Dice Clay gives a remarkably convincing performance as this formidable mafioso.

This isn’t exactly “classy” material, as a number of critics have noted with their usual nose-holding squeamishness. And perhaps my favorite aspect of the series is how it thematizes the American preoccupation with class and its snooty public veneer, “classiness.” We see Pamela Anderson being groomed and classed-up by her agent for a possible transition from TV to movie star with her leading role in the upcoming film Barb Wire (1996). And as an inevitable part of that process, she’s being urged to distance herself from all the elements of her life that could be perceived as rough or vulgar or tawdry or any of the other descriptive words associated with the term “low-class.”

But of course, that’s almost Anderson’s whole life so far, in terms of what got her from her early state as “a good Christian girl from small-town Canada,” as she describes herself, to Baywatch star. The working-class daughter of a repairman and a waitress, Anderson took her first step toward stardom when she was “discovered” on the Jumbotron during a Canadian football game. She was wearing a “form-fitting” Labatt Beer T-shirt, which led to an offer to be a spokesmodel for the brewing company. And pretty soon she got the call from Hugh Hefner, and the breast implants, and the record number of Playboy covers.

There’s an affecting scene in the third episode about Anderson’s role model for what she hopes to accomplish in her life, and it’s a very unlikely choice: Jane Fonda. Because, as Anderson puts it, Fonda could move in the phases of her career from “sex kitten” to respected actress to serious political activist to admired entrepreneur, and “she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought of her.”

It’s a touchingly written scene about how Anderson can’t see why it’ll be impossible for her to do what Fonda could, though she speaks so plaintively she seems to sense it already. Fonda was of course born into wealth — the daughter of esteemed actor Henry Fonda and socialite Frances Ford Seymour, with a ballet-trained body and a Method-trained performance style, who waltzed into film stardom in her early twenties. From birth onward, very “classy.”

The show’s creator, Robert Siegel, also wrote the scripts for The Wrestler and The Founder, and he seems genuinely invested in the agonies of working-class people who find a measure of success in America. Along with Gillespie behind the camera, what we have in Pam & Tommy is a kind of dream team of sharp, class-conscious American satire. We need a lot more of it.