‘Pam & Tommy’ Review: The Internet Is for Porn

Cindy F. Cape

Episode 4 of Hulu’s “Pam & Tommy” begins as the website pamsextape.com loads on a mid-90s IBM desktop computer — the gaudy typeface screaming “PAMELA’S HARDCORE SEX VIDEO,” the titillating photos of Pamela Anderson and her husband Tommy Lee loading one strip of pixels at a time.

After watching the scene, I typed the URL into my browser, for journalism. Surprise! The site is still there, loading faster now, tacky “BUY HERE” button and all. But its links now redirect you to the home page of Annapurna Pictures, a production company behind the limited series, which has preserved the page like some kind of UNESCO World Heritage Porn Site.

Like that page, “Pam & Tommy,” which begins on Hulu Wednesday, is something both old and new. It is partly a picaresque porn-world caper, in the spirit of the pop culture of the decade in which it is set, like “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Boogie Nights.” And it is partly a 21st-century reconsideration of how that era treated young women, like “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” “Framing Britney Spears” and even “Yellowjackets.”

Put the two sides together and you have a rollicking hybrid of heist comedy, love story and cautionary tale, whose clashing parts offer a dark-comic portrait of one era and a creepy preview of another: the gross, panoptical future of the internet, arriving at 28.8 kilobits per second.

Like so many tales of woe, this one begins with a home renovation. In 1995, Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), a sometime porn actor turned contractor, is hired by the volatile Tommy (Sebastian Stan) to build a sex Xanadu complete with mirrors and stripper pole, then fired and stiffed for thousands of dollars. The opening scenes — Rand hammering to the sounds of raucous newlywed coupling — set a directorial tone that’s as subtle as Tommy’s banana-hammock briefs.

As payback, Rand steals the couple’s safe, which contains, among other valuables, the now-notorious homemade erotica tape. He seeks out a contact in the porn business (Nick Offerman, his performance so impeccably greasy you’ll need soap to wash it off), who realizes they have something valuable but unmonetizable: No one will sell it.

No one, that is, until a visit to the fledgling World Wide Web to buy plumbing supplies makes Rand realize that he has access to a global, anonymous, electronic market. Faster than you can say http-colon-slash-slash, a business is born, and a media frenzy unleashed.

In the mind of Rand, an autodidact of world religions, he is a righteous instrument of karma. But what he’s doing amounts to what we now call revenge porn — a violation that mainly ends up targeting a woman, not the man Rand is purportedly getting back at. (That website does not advertise “TOMMY’S HARDCORE SEX VIDEO,” after all.)

In the end, “Pam & Tommy,” created by Robert Siegel, is Pam’s story above all. But it takes its time getting there, which is its most audacious gambit or biggest failure, or possibly both.

The early going focuses on Rand — less villain than schmo, a hapless angry mullet — and on a parodic rendering of Pam and Tommy’s whirlwind courtship. The “Baywatch” star is a personification of the sex-bomb beach ideal, the Mötley Crüe drummer a glammed-up caricature of strutting masculinity. It’s like watching two action figures come to life and mate.

The early going feels like “Pam & Tommy” trying to have its exploitation and feel superior to it, too. It invites you to see the whole affair the way many people at the time did (especially late-night hosts like Jay Leno, played by Adam Ray), as a goofball tabloid escapade in which a pair of trashy celebrities get exposed. When “the jokes write themselves,” as a “Tonight” writer says here, they tend not to be great jokes.

But then it takes a shift, which makes me believe the yuk-it-up early tone is at least partly intentional: It starts treating its cartoons as people who feel real pain.

This is especially true of Pam, played by Lily James, thanks in part to James’s sneakily complex performance. In a story that loves to go big and broad (Stan plays Tommy as a libidinous windup toy), she finds subtleties in a woman that Hollywood and the media want to make into a sex cartoon.

On the set of “Baywatch,” where the producers cut her lines and fuss over the adjustment of her swimsuit, Pam smiles, nods and cajoles her way to more agency. When the video goes public, she’s savvy enough to know that what is merely an embarrassment to Tommy — maybe even a publicity boost — is far more devastating to her.

She also realizes that his hotheaded decision to sue Penthouse magazine over publishing stills from the video will only expose her further. The series’s best episode, written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Hannah Fidell, intercuts her humiliating deposition in the case with her discovery as a model and Playboy Playmate, cautioned by Hugh Hefner (Mike Seely) against people who want to make her into “the Pamela that they want.” The theft and sale of her most intimate moments is the ultimate example.

In many ways, “Pam & Tommy” is the Malibu cousin to last year’s “Impeachment,” about Monica Lewinsky. It too is a story about how the nascent Web helped tabloid stories leap to major media in the ’90s, and a revisitation of a “sex scandal” that was really a high-tech slut shaming.

There’s a lot of low hanging ’90s nostalgia in “Pam & Tommy.” (There was a time, kids, when “sex tapes” were actually tapes.) But there’s also a distinct idea about the paradoxical sexual mores of the “Private Parts” and “There’s Something About Mary” era, when popular culture was becoming more lewd and sexually open but still more restrictive in the leeway it granted women vs. men.

The result is a more erratic, less realistic narrative than “Impeachment” but one whose absurdist leaps bring its era more vividly to life. It also features more creative, er, practical effects, when Tommy has a debate with his own penis — spiritedly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas — which bobs and gesticulates like something from a remake of “Dumbo.”

How well it all works depends in part on how well you believe a feminist media retrospective can coexist with talking genitalia. “Pam & Tommy” isn’t consistent in its tone or arguments, but it is consistently entertaining. It invites you in with screwball comedy, then, as Pam endures a good-sport “Tonight” show visit with the leering Leno, gives her the last word: “It’s not funny.”

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