In 1995, a contractor–slash–erstwhile porn actor broke into the mansion Pamela Anderson shared with husband Tommy Lee and stole a safe that contained, among more conventionally valuable items, a sex tape. The contractor made VHS copies of the home video and sold them online, in part because Lee owed him money. Eventually, the video itself landed on the internet because, in the modern world, embarrassing videos must never die. Anderson says she’s never watched the sex tape, just like she won’t be watching the Hulu miniseries Pam & Tommy (or so a source tells Us Weekly).
Pam & Tommy, which is sort of a television biopic with a “faster! louder! cruder!” comic sensibility, is less hostile to Anderson’s privacy than the release of her sex tape, but it’s also less explicable. In 1995, Pamela Anderson was the bombshell blonde of Baywatch and a Playboy vet. A tape of her having sex with her husband, who happened to be the bad-boy drummer of Mötley Crüe, had a ready audience. In 2022, Anderson is a 54-year-old woman making a home-reno show for HGTV Canada. She’s been vocally anti-porn and, it seems, anti–Pam & Tommy, a series about a private tape released without her consent made without her participation.
The first three episodes are directed by Craig Gillespie, who helmed the black comedy I, Tonya based on the life of the luckless Olympic figure skater. The similarities extend beyond casting Sebastian Stan as a dirtbag ex-husband. It’s almost a recipe: Resurrect a ’90s tabloid saga in which the media pulverizes a female celeb and tell it again, this time with more compassion for the woman at the eye of the storm. Not every biopic needs to involve or please its muse, but art that dredges up a real person’s pain to tell a story with negligible historical significance is only as strong as the case for its relevance. The series premiere, “Drilling and Pounding,” moves swiftly, hitting the beats of the Rolling Stone feature on which it’s based. Seth Rogen is funny as Rand Gauthier, the contractor that Tommy belittles over the edge, but the episode barely attempts to answer the nagging question: Why are we even talking about this again?
The closest it comes, I think, is in a brief opening sequence. Lily James does her breathiest, girliest Pamela, arguably too breathy to be accurate, but maybe that’s the point she’s making about the highly stylized invention that is Pamela Anderson Lee in the first place. Jay Leno asks his guest “what’s it like” to have a private sex tape in wide circulation. “What’s it like?” Pamela repeats, moving her mouth around elaborately like she’s having trouble making his stupid words come out. She’s mesmeric. What do you think it’s like, Jay?
We don’t find out. Instead, we cut to a year earlier. Rand is nail-gunning the custom bed he’s been hired to build for Pam and Tommy’s master suite, but he’s struggling to concentrate against the sounds of the newlywed’s raucous lovemaking wafting in from some other wing of their obnoxious Malibu mansion (which you may remember from MTV Cribs or even Lee’s memoir Tommyland, which I swear I’ve only skimmed). Rand’s not just any carpenter. In the back of his work van, greasy pizza boxes are crammed in with his tools and a milk crate containing the reading list for a survey course on world religion: the Bhagavad Gita, a Masonic manual, a book about the occult. Rand is a carpenter–slash–amateur theologian, not entirely unlike Jesus, I suppose.
When Tommy Lee shows up to make dramatic, erratic changes to the design for his sexy sex palace, he’s wearing only a banana hammock and accompanied by a very shaggy, very good dog. Tommy is shiny and self-confident, and across his toned stomach, he’s tattooed the word mayhem — all caps — which is something of a promise. He wants the bedroom to be even pimper, and he does not care how much time and money it costs because it’s not his time or his money. He owes Rand $8,200 for work already completed, plus he owes Lonnie, the general contractor, another $15,000. When Rand looks at Tommy and Pam, he sees a rockstar and a sex kitten, avatars who can’t stop shaking their hair carelessly in the breeze and licking each other’s faces. Rand does not see human beings, and, to be fair, Tommy doesn’t see Rand as one either.
Unexpectedly, the episode hews closest to Rand, taking pains to emphasize how pitifully human he is. We follow Rand out the mansion gates and back to his shithole apartment littered with unpaid bills. He’s a carpenter who sleeps on a mattress on the floor in Van Nuys. He jacks off to porn with a bag of frozen peas taped to his hand, which is swollen from punching the wall for no good reason except that there’s no solution to his money problems. The cable company shut off his TV, but the hot wife of the boss who stiffed him is starring on Baywatch. Tommy Lee is not an easy man to talk to — when Rand finally confronts him about the money he’s owed, Tommy’s playing with his gun collection — but Rand is especially inept at talking. Just say it’s standard practice to pay half the construction costs upfront and invoice the man! Rand may not know much, but he’s seen more than a few past-due notices.
Things quickly go from bad to catastrophic, as they must when someone this hapless is involved. Tommy accuses Rand of perving on Pam in the kitchen when really he’s there just looking to talk to Tommy again. Tommy fires him because Tommy’s a complete dickhead, pathologically reckless and mercurial in ways that should make us worried for Pam. Lonnie’s fired, too. Rand suggests that they sue, but the legal fees could drain them both. In the end, Rand the woodworking philosopher supposes karma will take care of Tommy, just like in the Mahabharata, which he describes as “one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa,” literally borrowing the opening passage of the Mahabharata’s Wikipedia entry, which does not yet exist.
Rand is attracted to religion for its straightforward approach to justice: The righteous get rewarded, though unfortunately for the balance on Rand’s Discover card, not always here on earth. The next day, when Tommy aims a gun at Rand as he tries to collect his tools, Rand wets himself, activating a painful childhood memory. Rand wet himself as a kid when his jerky, negligent dad banished him to a room without a toilet so that could host a party. His dad called him worthless then, and Tommy thinks he’s worthless now. That’s okay because Rand is no longer looking to simply collect lost wages. This is a crusade against evil. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the sex tape, even if they have to steal it.
To be clear, Rand doesn’t know there’s a tape in the safe. He knows about the guns and the money and the fact that Tommy keeps the safe in an unlocked garage in an unlocked cupboard. Rand, so clumsy at daily life, dedicates himself to the heist. He stakes out the Lees’ mansion, monitoring the comings and goings of Pam and Tommy and the paparazzi and the new construction crew. He tells Lonnie, who loves tiki drinks, about his harebrained plan to dart past the lo-res security cameras dressed like Tommy’s dog in a faux-sheepskin rug that calls to mind Nana from the 1960 made-for-TV musical adaptation of Peter Pan. Reasonably, Lonnie declines to join him in this comic book caper.
It’s hard to build much drama or even comedy around the heist since (1) we know it works and (2) don’t care much at all about the guy doing it. Rand doesn’t have to enter the mansion to steal the safe, but on the night he robs the Lees, he goes into the mansion just because he can. In waking life, Rand barely manages a sentence in Tommy’s direction, but in the middle of the night, with Pam and Tommy prone and naked, he gives his nemesis the finger before he loads his safe on a dolly and walks it out the front gates. Amen.
Rand ditches the safe in the woods somewhere and inventories his booty: the guns, some cash, a dagger, a white bikini of unknown significance. He pawns what he can and pays off his debts. It could end there for Rand, but this is no longer about recouping the money he’s owed — not anymore. This is about divine justice. Rand isn’t a thief but a zealot, opening himself up to the gods as an instrument for their awesome karma but on the timeline of a slacker. Eventually, he gets around to bringing the Hi8 tape he found in the safe to a guy with the technology to play it back, Milton Ingley (Nick Offerman) — a porn producer in the Valley. They watch the tape together, fast-forwarding through the boring family vacation bits and finding the sex tape hidden in the otherwise banal home video. As Pam and Tommy do it, offscreen, we hear Pam ask her husband to give her babies before she lets out an orgasmic scream. It’s only the third time we hear her voice across the entire first episode.
Pam never answers the question Jay puts to her in the opening sequence, but I thought about that scene a lot. I thought about it so much I Googled Anderson’s appearances on Jay Leno and watched what I could find. In real life, Anderson’s not squirmy and speechless. On one occasion, she even tries to hold Leno to account, bringing a supercut of all the monologue jokes he’s made about the sex tape up until that point. They play it on-air, and the audience laughs and claps, and Jay laughs, too, but Anderson doesn’t, at least not right away. She holds one manicured finger to her chin, and she looks sad. “It’s not funny,” she says, though it’s awkward and she’s starting to smile along like she’s been doing for years. What do you think it’s like, Jay? In real life, she told him straight: “This is devastating to us.”