Fanfare
Published in

Fanfare

‘Pam & Tommy’ Reviewed by Someone Who was Never into Baywatch or Mötley Crüe

Image: Hulu

You might think I’m unqualified to comment on Pam & Tommy because I never watched Baywatch and I never listened to Mötley Crüe. In fact, with the exception of Spinal Tap, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any band who spell their name with a redundant umlaut. (Sex Farm is still the funniest bit of priapic cock rock ever committed to record.) I was six years old when the events dramatized in this series took place. As I understand it these days, kids who loved Nirvana hated the kids in high school who listened to Mötley Crüe. I feel that, even though I didn’t even really listen to music in secondary; it wasn’t until university that I became a pop and rock geek.

That’s partly because I was so uninspired by what my friends listened to. Pop punk. Rap metal. Foo Fighters. Reading Festival sounded like hell on earth, and I thought that people who wouldn’t shut up about justice for Kurt Cobain were full of shit. That’s why I came to Nirvana so late, and Sara and I have been listening to a lot of them since watching The Batman. Also recently, I read Simon Reynolds’s thrilling, wide-ranging, and comprehensive Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–1984. I’d been too scared to ask after all this time, but now I finally know who the Meat Puppets were, and listening to them has only enriched MTV Unplugged for me.

Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee hadn’t figured in my understanding of the 1990s, and watching this series rectified that. I’m going to approach the story from this angle.

Image: Hulu

At first we think that Rand Gauthier is going to be our hero. It’s certainly easy to sympathise with his predicament. For one, it’s delightful and downright inspiring to see Seth Rogen looking so trim and healthy. Cast him as a hardworking carpenter who’s abused and stiffed by a megalomaniacal rock star and his bimbo wife. Boom! You’ve got the ingredients for an underdog caper with a mid-90s flavour. Rand is building Tommy Lee’s bedroom, a task that would be taxing enough without all the obnoxious flesh on display — not only the well-endowed drummer’s but also his famously pneumatic bride’s. Poor Rand doesn’t know where to look as invoices pile up unpaid while wealth and beauty are flagrantly flaunted. His eye offends Lee, who then plucks him of his livelihood by confiscating his tools. For Rand, a former pornographic actor, emasculation works hand-in-glove with immiseration. The serial loser decides to take a stand for once in his life, and he burgles the Lee mansion.

This dices-loaded opening discharges its duties effectively: we’re all for Rand getting his own back because we’re as sick as he is of the half-naked Tommy. Sebastian Stan, bedecked in tattoos and bulging with prosthetic enhancement, is a monster of hauteur and entitlement as the rock icon. A vulgarian and a bully. We lean forward in anticipation of his humbling. Even once the machinery of flashback kicks in to show us his wooing of Pam we struggle to warm to him. Too aggressive, too pushy, too clearly in love with himself. If anything sweeps us up into their whirlwind romance and suspends our disbelief, it’s Lily James’s luminous performance. Hers is necessarily a somewhat abbreviated presence in the opening movements of this sleazy symphony. It has to be in order for us to buy into the initial thrill of Rand’s quest to royally fuck Tommy Lee.

Motive. Opportunity. Means. Through the burglary Rand acquires sundry riches pilfered form Tommy’s safe, along with a certain item. A Hi8 cassette tape (I notice that MS Word spellchecker has no problem with that brand name), an analogue recording off a Sony 8mm camcorder. Now, I live for this shit: the Hi8 was intended as a slender rival to the bulky VHS and Betamax tapes. Rand, whose hands-on technical expertise ranges from carpentry to filmmaking, doesn’t have the equipment to play the format. The Hi8 would receive its final upgrade in 1998, after it failed to make the leap from the camcorder to the home video market. It’s a true detail from the 2014 Rolling Stone article the series is based on, and the creators use it to get us thinking about technological discontinuities. Priming us for the great shock that they want us to try to experience as if for the first time.

Image: Hulu

Rand seeks out a former colleague, the porno producer Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman, still seeking to ham his way out of Ron Swanson’s shadow). They play the tape and find they’ve acquired means of payback beyond their wildest dreams. We all know about the sex tape. Ever thought about the fact that you’ll never lay eyes on the original? From Rolling Stone:

First, after making a few copies, they destroyed the original Hi8 cassette, melting the casing and cutting the tape itself into hundreds of little pieces, which they dispersed in a desolate area near Six Flags Magic Mountain. Once they’d disposed of the evidence, the next step was to find a distributor.

No distributor will put the tape out without releases signed by its participants, which for obvious reasons elude Rand and Milt. Maybe gatekeepers are underrated? But the doors they’re about to open cannot be shut. Once out there, the footage disseminates like Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-9, and none of the parties involved can gain any sort of grip on its spread. Rand and Milt have no recourse against the copycats who profit off their contraband. Meanwhile, Penthouse owner Bob Guccione finds himself the subject of a pre-emptive lawsuit while he idly eyes up stills of the footage. Lee is driven out of anger and embarrassment, and Guccione is a free speech enthusiast. Both are proud men, and the resulting imbroglio only amplifies the tape’s notoriety. This was eight years before Barbra Streisand tried to get that photo taken down. Won’t anyone think of Pamela?

Image: Hulu

Now, I want to talk about my one criticism. And you’ll see it’s a glancing one, indicative of the high curve on which I’m grading this thing. One of the great satisfactions of the final few episodes is watching Rand’s undoing and humiliation. Ruined by events that he’s set in motion, on the run from very unsavoury characters, he’s forced to hole up with his ex-wife. I’d tuned out of Orange is the New Black with heavy heart as the series got ridiculously overwrought, and it’s nice to have Taylor Schilling back on my television screen. Unfortunately she gets lumbered with this show’s one explicit teaching moment: once she finds out what Rand’s been up to she kicks him out of the house, but not before she gives him a lecture on consent. Dramatically it’s well-placed, pithily written, and delivered with searing conviction. It’s also a touch pat. We were all thinking it. Obviously we’re witnessing the inception of revenge porn, but timeliness and topicality are boring — particularly when the show is frying other fish so effectively.

What I found most fascinating about this series is how ruthlessly it refuses to impose any sort of “prescience” or “relevance” (two of my least favourite words to encounter in an analytical or pedagogic context) on its events. Despite the sarcastic remarks I’ve encountered in various reviews, there’s nothing clumsy or even cutesy about what we might call its “Tommy what’s a website?” moments. In fact, they land for two reasons.

First there’s how the characters’ reactions aren’t anything as arch or sarcastic as prejudicial quotation would have you think. They are encountering these technologies for the first time, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that the timing of this experience is a prime existential divider of people. I can vividly remember hearing dial-up for the first time. Can you?

Image: Hulu

To give you a sense of the early internet’s distance from Tommy Lee’s world, the first forums or message boards were set up and used by Bay Area techno fans. California truly contains multitudes. Or take a scene where Rand breezily dismisses the potential of livestreamed cam-porn. The dialogue isn’t inflected with the easy sort of historical irony that one might expect (The Titanic will never sink and war between the great powers of Europe is unthinkable, by jingo) but rather with a hobbyist’s passion and technical know-how.

But while the stubborn refusal of prolepsis safeguards our immersion in the period, let’s get to our second reason. Lily James is this show’s most potent affect. Even in Pam’s moments of greatest joy she brings tear to your eyes. Guilelessness is her prime commodity and thus her prison. Talk about tragic: this violation was visited upon her because she failed to heed Hugh Heffner’s advice and allowed her valuation to become pegged to her price, which in itself was a function of how available she made her nudity. Such a woman is assumed to have waived all consent, and yet when she grieves for her shattered privacy the emotion on display is overwhelming. This is her best work to date.

A final thought: in a brilliant touch, the sex tape is largely kept off screen. One of the most distressing scenes has Pam recognising her own voice as sniggering techies watch the movie on the set of Baywatch. All we’re given are hers and Tommy’s voices: raw, vulnerable, utterly naked. The horror of violation is so humanising — referring us back to the real Pamela Anderson, who did not endorse this production — that you find yourself reeling from the entire spectacle. If you feel even a fraction of discomfort, ask yourself what it must have been like for her.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.