Pam & Tommy set out to change the narrative about Pamela Anderson. Here’s why it failed
There is one thing that everyone seems to agree on when it comes to the new Disney+ show, Pam & Tommy, and that is that Lily James is Pamela Anderson. There might have been mixed reviews and some controversy over the retelling of the story behind the ’90s most infamous sex tape, but no one is in any doubt that Lily wholly embodied the former Baywatch star.
And it’s true. Lily is mesmerising as Pamela: delving beneath the bombshell exterior to be sweet but strong, chronically underestimated but desperate to prove herself. Visually, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart.
Indeed, it’s such a jaw-dropping performance that it’s all too easy to believe that what we’re seeing is the real thing. That this is Pamela revealing herself on her own terms; that it’s the truth.
But this is not Pamela, nor is it a version that Pamela has sanctioned, something that clashes wildly with the producers’ intentions to give her a voice.
The latest in a line of reimagined narratives of wronged women of the ’90s (alongside I,Tonya, American Crime Story: Impeachment, Spencer and documentaries about Britney Spears and Janet Jackson), Pam & Tommy is apparently designed to reframe a story that pulverised Anderson’s career and made her punchline.
The story, based on a 2014 Rolling Stone article, tells how a disgruntled contractor named Rand Gauthier (played here by Seth Rogen, who is also a producer) stole a safe from the home of Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee (played by Sebastian Stan) after he refused to pay him for a job. In the safe, Gauthier found a tape featuring private footage of Tommy and his then-wife, Pamela, which he began selling on the newly established internet. Soon, it was bootlegged and circulated widely, eventually being distributed for free online.
Pam & Tommy goes to great lengths to emphasise how poorly Pamela was treated by almost everyone. She was underestimated, overlooked, ogled, monetised, used and abused. The Baywatch producers used the parts of her they want and ignore the rest, just as Gauthier did when it came to selling the sex tape. It was her name, and not Tommy’s that got people interested.
Perhaps the most devastating scene in the show comes when Pamela (and crucially, not Tommy) must attend a deposition in which she is forced not only to watch clips from the tape in a room of accusatory male lawyers but also answer humiliating questions like “How old were you the first time you publicly exposed your genitals?” The whole thing is so harrowing that at one point Pamela, exhausted from the ritual degradation, excuses herself to throw up in the bathroom.
Indeed, writer, Robert Siegel has described Pamela as “certainly the hero of the show.” “At every step of the way, we’ve tried to do right by her,” he has said. “From the writing to working very closely with Lily, who kind of grew into our custodian of the character.”