Pam & Tommy’s Misplaced Forgiveness

Photo: Erin Simkin/ HULU

Hindsight can act as a funhouse mirror. Look back on the past with the perspective of the future and you’ll see something familiar, but distorted: new textures, wrinkles, and angles added to a story you thought you knew. Perhaps amid all those oddities, something can emerge that looks like truth, and that helps us better understand who we were then and who we are now. For six weeks Pam & Tommy has walked along that tenuous boundary between public opinion before and after, culminating in a finale that captures the condescending limitations of rewriting history. (Note: Light spoilers for final episode, “Seattle,” lie ahead.)

The Hulu miniseries is based on the 2014 Rolling Stone article “Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Sex Tape” by Amanda Chicago Lewis and was adapted by creator Robert Siegel (who wrote The Founder and The Wrestler) and executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The first three episodes were directed by Craig Gillespie — whose specialty at this point is the “misunderstood woman,” given his run of I, Tonya, Cruella, and Physical — while a trio of female directors (Lake Bell, Gwyneth Horder-Payton, and Hannah Fidell) rounded out the rest. Under their guidance, Pam & Tommy has painted its titular duo not as exhibitionists who purposefully leaked their own sex tape for infamy and fortune, as the contemporaneous narrative assumed. Instead, the blonde from Baywatch and the tattooed drummer from Mötley Crüe were lusty-but-in-love homebodies whose privacy was violated by wronged employee Rand Gauthier’s theft and distribution of their sex tape and whose marriage imploded after the pressure and trauma of that breach.

That “empathy tourism” approach reframed Lily James’s Pamela Anderson as a media-savvy feminist, Tommy Lee as an adoring father-to-be, and in series finale “Seattle,” Rogen’s Gauthier as a man consumed by regret and obsessed with apologizing to Anderson. It’s a tidy way to wrap up the overly sympathetic arc the series has given Gauthier, and it’s also a complete fantasy — a pat on the head for viewers new to this story who don’t know anything about Gauthier’s real-life lack of remorse and who buy into the pitiful characterization underscored by Rogen’s sad-sack performance. No matter that there’s no record of the frantic, heartfelt apology from Gauthier to Anderson depicted in “Seattle,” and no matter that Anderson wanted nothing to do with the series that her family and friends have described as exploitative. (She is working with Netflix on a documentary from her perspective.) If the guy who wronged Anderson so fully can try to make amends, Pam & Tommy seems to say, then he sets a relatable, empathetic example for all of us, and this miniseries has a reason to exist. In giving absolution to Gauthier, Pam & Tommy also provides it for itself.

From the very beginning of premier episode “Drilling and Pounding,” our perspective is aligned with Gauthier’s — literally, in close-up, as he hammers nails into a bed frame while Lee and Anderson have wailing, rambunctious, lurid sex in a nearby bedroom. Rogen makes Gauthier, owed thousands of dollars by Lee for his work renovating the couple’s mansion, all exasperated looks and soft posture. Styled unfashionably with a mullet and ill-fitting outfits, and drowning in bills, he’s constantly hovering, stammering, and apologizing; his cramping hand, injured after using the nail gun while listening to Lee and Anderson orgasm, reflects his impotence. When Gauthier finally decides to stand up for himself against Lee’s constantly changing carpentry plans, he suffers two injustices — fired without pay and run off Lee’s property with a shotgun pressed into his face — and a flashback to the childhood abuse he suffered from his violent father is meant to cement our sympathy. Gauthier wets his pants from the memory and Lee’s threats, and through Rogan’s woebegone affect, Pam & Tommy argues that his embarrassment and mistreatment are justification enough for his decision to sneak back into the couple’s mansion and steal their safe.

As the series progresses, Gauthier’s pitifulness is his most defining quality. He’s a moron, describing the video as “seized … for compentory damages,” but he has a heart of gold. Pam & Tommy spends a significant amount of time on his relationship with estranged wife Erica (Taylor Schilling), for whom he still does household fixes. The $8,000 he owes her to finalize their divorce hangs over their relationship, but Pam & Tommy positions his loyalty to and affection for her as a virtue — as another element of him walking a “righteous path.”

Nevertheless, Gauthier is taken advantage of by nearly everyone. By coked-out porn producer Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman), who partners with him in selling and distributing the stolen sex tape over the Internet and then absconds to Amsterdam with all the money earned. By the bootleggers who copy the tape, disrespecting what Gauthier huffily describes as “somebody else’s considerable risk and labor,” and sell it for a cheaper price. (Interesting that Pam & Tommy positions a young Latino man in a Tower Records parking lot as being the primary antagonist for Gauthier in this way, rather than the Ingley Studios co-worker identified in Lewis’s article.) And by mobster and porn producer Louis “Butchie” Peraino (Andrew Dice Clay), who tortures Gauthier after learning that Miltie has left the country with the $50,000 Butchie loaned them and who forces Gauthier into collections to repay his debt.

Beating up other people is “devouring my soul,” Gauthier tells Butchie, and the many shots of his bloody knuckles evoke that earlier cramped hand — like Gauthier is subject to forces outside of his control. It’s the same treatment Pam & Tommy gives Anderson, and the way the series mirrors the pair in each other (the interest in Eastern religions, the way they’re pushed around by Lee) is a puzzling choice. Over and over, Anderson and Gauthier’s struggles are given equal weight, and both are presented as victims. In fourth episode “The Master Beta,” Bell cuts between Gauthier escaping the Hells Angels bikers Lee has set on him and Anderson and Lee’s paparazzi-plagued drive home from the hospital after she suffers a miscarriage. In seventh episode “Destroyer of Worlds,” a rapid zoom and centered, middle-close-up framing are used for both Anderson’s speech about being labeled a slut and how men “will never understand my position,” and for Rand’s admission to Erica that he was responsible for the sex tape: “After just taking it and taking it and taking it my whole life, I couldn’t fucking take it anymore.”

With that duality in place, Pam & Tommy unveils two apologies from Gauthier in “Seattle”: first to an Anderson lookalike posing for pictures outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and then to Anderson herself. This scene calls back to “Drilling and Pounding,” in which Gauthier watched Lee and Anderson leave their mansion in a luxury car without noticing him; this time around, he waits outside the couple’s mansion, slams on their moving car to get her attention for his four utterances of “I’m sorry,” and is then thrown off into the street when Lee accelerates the car and drives away. Even when trying to do a good thing, Pam & Tommy seems to say, Gauthier — who Erica describes as “a good person who’s done some really stupid things” — gets wrongfully punched down.

That’s not the end of “Seattle,” but it’s the clearest moment in which Horder-Payton and Siegel are playing with the historical record to give viewers what they think we want to see. In the Rolling Stone story, Gauthier mentions no apology to Anderson, nor does he seem to think she deserves one. He takes ownership for stealing the video, and seems proud of it: “He likes the fact that he contributed this small token to the world, and he’s always enjoyed watching the tape itself,” writes Lewis, and Gauthier is quoted as saying, “It was cute.” All the stuff about karma and contrition that Pam & Tommy attributes to Gauthier comes in the story from a man named Cort St. George who worked for Seth Warshavsky, the internet entrepreneur who would eventually get Anderson and Lee to sign over the copyright for their tape. “I worry about myself sometimes. What did I really do?” St. George is quoted as saying, and that thoughtful sentiment is transferred to Gauthier in Pam & Tommy: “What did she ever do to me?”

The problem with this fictionalization, though, is that it undercuts the very observation Pam & Tommy is trying to make about how the prevailing patriarchy, casual sexism, and assumption of collective ownership over Anderson’s body in the ’90s combined to create a perfect storm of violation. The reality is that no one was punished for this act, and injecting regret and justifiability into Gauthier’s version of events is to diminish the far-reaching impact his actions had not just on Anderson’s life, but on the very concept of revenge porn as we know it. “At least Gauthier felt bad about it,” Pam & Tommy says, but is that apology for Anderson’s benefit, or ours? Even the series’ end credits focus on the disbelief surrounding Gauthier rather than a judgment of his actions: “Occasionally, he’ll tell someone he was the guy who stole the Pam and Tommy sex tape. Almost no one believes him.” (In a February 2022 interview with The Sun, Gauthier gives an “I’m sorry if you were offended” style apology to Anderson and also changes his story to claim that the Gambino organized-crime family stole the tape, not him.)

Pam & Tommy claims it’s given Anderson a voice, but by dreaming up an ending that prioritizes Gauthier as an audience surrogate whose “I’m sorry!” screams are meant to be an emotional catharsis, the series doesn’t allow her to be heard.


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Pam & Tommy’s Misplaced Forgiveness