“Pamela in Wonderland” rewinds the clock from 1996 to the mid-’80s so that we can learn how a perky and pretty, if naïve, waitress from Nowheresville, British Columbia, ended up in Tinseltown’s cynical crosshairs. The episode is short — not even 30 minutes — which is still long enough, given the version of the story it tells is so straightforward it never escapes cliché. A small-town girl is just hanging out — in Pam’s case, she’s at a football game with her dead-end boyfriend — when she catches the eye of a guy whose job it is to identify girls who can catch an eye, a marketing VP at Labatt Brewing Company. To avoid her jealous boyfriend’s temper, young Pam calls the rep from the safety of the old-timey diner where she works. Before you know it, she’s a “Blue Zone Girl,” her promotional poster hanging in the bedrooms of pubescent boys all over Western Canada.
Her Labatt gig isn’t a one-off; it changes the entire course of her life. If she’d been sitting in a different section of the stadium or if she’d been too busy to blow out her feathered bangs, would Pamela have ever become Casey Jean “C.J.” Parker, one of the longest-serving lifeguards in the history of Los Angeles County? Off the back of her Labatt poster, Pam cheerily accepts a modeling invitation from Playboy. The aforementioned dead-end boyfriend whips his Game Boy at her in disgust, which means Tommy’s not the first man in her life prone to violent outbursts. But we also learn that once upon a time, Pamela didn’t hesitate to say good-bye to a man standing in her way. She dumps the boyfriend and heads to Hugh Hefner’s storied mansion with her mom as a chaperone.
Which isn’t to say Pam doesn’t experience doubts about posing naked. After her hair, makeup, and wardrobe are locked, she grows shy and maybe even a little reluctant about the shoot. The Playboy photographer skillfully puts her at ease (this isn’t his first time coaxing a beautiful woman in the direction of the boudoir set), and soon, she’s taking his suggestion to lose her blouse. Later, it will be her brassiere. After they wrap, a gracious and mannerly Hugh, in his signature burgundy smoking jacket, invites Pamela to share a drink. He tells her she’s one in a million, then gives her some unsolicited slash self-serving advice: “Separate your price from your worth. You do that, and you can be any version you need to be.”
Later that night, daydreaming about the future, Pam wonders aloud to her mom whether she shouldn’t get a boob job so that she more closely resembles the girls she met at the mansion. Her mom’s onboard. This is Pamela’s wonderful life now. Maybe she had a good life in Ladysmith, Canada, too. I don’t know? We don’t really hear about it. The assumption underlying these flashbacks seems to be that anyone would trade their small-town life for a chance at fame; that when Hugh Hefner calls, you’d have to be a real bumpkin not to answer.
These glimpses of Pam’s humble origins are intercut with Pam’s present-day nightmare: her deposition in the lawsuit the Lees brought against Penthouse. Bob Guccione’s lawyers are barbaric and unfeeling. Their questions are cruel and embarrassing. They’re not here to learn anything new about the sex tape. They’re here to malign Pam’s character on the record, to prove her unworthy of privacy or, worse, deserving of what’s happening to her right now. A lawyer asks Pam how old she was the first time she publicly exposed her genitals; he asks her if she’s ever worked as a prostitute. Pam’s useless lawyer objects to almost every question, but this isn’t a courtroom, and there’s no judge present to save her from the abuse and the embarrassment.
Dressed in a baby-blue miniskirt suit with her blonde hair falling down in perfect tendrils, Pam keeps impressively cool. When Bob’s lawyers suggest that she leaked the sex tape so that Bob would be free to publish the images without tarnishing her friendship with Hugh, she calmly questions why on earth she would do that. When Bob’s lawyers suggest Hugh’s been underpaying her for years, Pam’s adamant that she’s an equal player in her negotiations. Perhaps the lowest and least sensical argument the lawyer is desperate to get on record is that Pamela must have made the tape for money — however circuitously she might come about that money — because pornography is the Pamela Anderson business.
When she’s forced to watch the sex tape in a roomful of (male) lawyers, Pam finally starts to break. She struggles to make eye contact; her voice cracks. She can’t catch her breath when Bob’s lawyer asks if, when she was giving her husband road head, she was thinking about how truck drivers might peer in at them. It’s awful to watch him ask Pam to confirm over and over again, from different and more intrusive moments in the tape, if the person she’s seeing is, in fact, herself. As if either party disputes it! The questions are badgering: Did anyone see you filming as you had sex on the boat? Is it possible someone could see you? “Was that exciting to you and your husband?” This deposition is not about information gathering; it’s about destroying Pam’s resolve. And it’s successful.
Throughout the entire episode, as we follow her from Ladysmith to the Playboy Mansion, from stargazing with Tommy on their road trip to the sad conference room in which she’s deposed, Pam is magnificently lit. Even when she excuses herself to vomit in the bathroom, the show lets her do it beautifully. The court reporter tells her it’s the most horrible depo she’s ever seen. Pam’s a victim, yes, but she’s lit with the aura of sainthood wearing a halo of bleach-blonde curls. It bothers me. Even in a series seeking to retell the sex-tape story in a way that corrects how she was exploited in the ’90s, Pam’s hardly a full character: She’s a girl next door, she’s a pinup, she’s a slut, she’s a wife. In “Pamela in Wonderland,” she’s a backlit avatar for the way we used to treat women. We never get answers to the most basic questions: Why did Pam want to leave home? Did she always want to be famous? What about an actress? Where the hell is her mom now that she needs her most? What happened to all those close girlfriends she had before she met Tommy?
At the end of a long day, Pam tells her lawyer that she’s not coming back for round two of the depo. During a bathroom break, she begins to suspect that she’s pregnant. She’s the protective mother now. Another archetype, yes, but this time, I’m happy for her. It helps Pamela find the toughness she had back when she was dodging flying Game Boys before she was famous; before men were being paid to convince her to take off your top, gorgeous; before other men were being paid to embarrass her for taking it off. The strength to say no and leave the room for good.