The first three episodes of Pam & Tommy, the limited series depicting the story behind the leak of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s intimate home videos, is like a horror movie staged in broad daylight. From the perspective of 2022, we know how this story goes, even as we watch Pamela Anderson (a vivacious and charming Lily James) meet and fall into whirlwind love with (fading) rockstar Tommy Lee (Sebastian Stan, emitting alpha dirtbag energy). We know how this story ends, with Lee spending six months in jail on domestic violence charges, but in the world of Pam & Tommy, Pam and Tommy are still thoroughly in the fairytale. Pam no sooner swears off bad boys than she meets Tommy, who is immediately vadazzled by Pam, played by James not as a temptress but as a sincere young woman trying to build a real career as an actress, and getting absolutely no respect from anyone in the industry. It’s easy to see how Tommy, with his brashness and unconditional support of her acting, is so attractive to her beyond his rockstar persona.
In fact, their early relationship is quite sweet, their athletic sex life only one part of a growing relationship between two people who are lonely inside their fame bubbles, and grab onto one another and the family they want to start as a means of anchoring their otherwise insane lives. Stan and James have great chemistry together, but they also do a spectacular job of showing the vulnerable moments of two insecure people who find the acceptance and support they need in one another, no matter how otherwise incompatible they may seem. Their home life, sex sprees aside, is domestic and normal, as Tommy cooks traditional Greek dinners for Pam when she gets home from work, and they pray over pregnancy tests, hoping for a positive sign. Sure, Tommy talks to his dick—voiced by contemporary cinema’s ur-dirtbag, Jason Mantzoukas, in a bit lifted from Lee’s autobiography—and that’s weird and kind of upsetting, but you actually root for these two crazy kids, even knowing how badly it’s going to end. That’s the magic of James and Stan as performers.
But while Tommy and Pam are ensconced in newlywed bliss, others are not so happy. Tommy’s palatial Malibu home is under renovation, and he’s monstrous to the construction crew, stiffing them for tens of thousands of dollars they’ve paid out of pocket for supplies since Tommy won’t pay his deposits or any bills. Eventually, he clashes with the carpenter, Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen, doing a lot of mullet-acting), who is fired from the project and left holding a massive credit card bill he cannot pay. Rand, a self-described “amateur theologian”, hopes for karma to get the best of Tommy Lee, and then he quickly makes the leap that HE can be that karma, since he once saw the location of Tommy’s safe in the garage.
Rand cooks up a plan, dubbed “Operation Karma”, to steal the safe and pay himself and his contractor friend, Lonnie (Larry Brown), what they’re owed. What Rand finds in the safe, though, isn’t just money. It’s also Pam and Tommy’s intimate home video. While Pam and Tommy are settling into their marriage and starting their family, while Pam is on the brink of breaking out of the Baywatch bubble with an upcoming feature film, Rand is making shady deals to mass-produce their “sex tape” into a porn video, exploiting the burgeoning internet as a sales model.
These first three episodes, written by series co-showrunner Robert Siegel and directed by Craig Gillespie, cut back and forth between Pam and Tommy, and Rand and his partner, porn producer Uncle Miltie (Nick Offerman, exactly the guy you cast to play an internet-skeptical shady crank). These episodes do a brilliant job of illustrating how Pamela Anderson—and her career, and her ambition and aspirations—is really just roadkill on the highway of bullsh-t perpetrated by a bunch of dirtbag men. Rand’s revenge plot has NOTHING to do with HER, but SHE is the one who suffers the most. And while there is a lot of nudity, Pam & Tommy is not exploitative of Pam as an individual. She enjoys her intimate life with Tommy, and the meta-awareness of the show is that she has nothing to be ashamed of in this, that she is allowed to enjoy sex, and the sex scenes between Pam and Tommy are filmed exuberantly, and often set to romantic power ballads. They’re young and in love and they like sex, as is their right.
Contrasted to that is how everyone treats Pam within the world of the show. The men who make Baywatch don’t respect her, cutting dialogue for CJ, her character, but staring intently at the monitor as they get her swimsuit wedgie juuuust right, and Rand also objectifies her—it’s clear from the moment they meet that Rand simply does not see Pam as a person, but an object. This is why he’s able to sell her intimate video without considering that Pam was never part of “Operation Karma”, that he wanted to hurt Tommy, not Pam, and yet ends up hurting Pam most of all. The weakness in the early going of Pam & Tommy is that the show is too forgiving of Rand.
Yes, Rand is justified in being furious at Tommy, and had he just stolen the safe and taken Tommy’s money and fancy guns and watches, you could argue that a fair bit of revenge, and guilt-free true crime. But he publishes the tape. He drags Pam into his anger at Tommy. That’s the line that is crossed, and, at least early on, Pam & Tommy is a little too invested in the early internet shenanigans and Rand’s, er, revolutionary idea to sell the tape online to more definitively underscore how Rand’s decisions are victimizing Pam. But this is, essentially, just part one of the story. What comes next is even worse, for Pam more than anyone else. And that is a fact Pam & Tommy keeps squarely in focus.
Pam & Tommy episodes 1-3 are streaming now on Hulu in the US and on Disney+ in Canada, with new episodes arriving every Wednesday.