Pam & Tommy Pamela Anderson Tommy Lee Lily James

Does Pamela Anderson need saving?

Pam & Tommy, much like Framing Britney, presents itself as a redemptive history intended to right past wrongs and smash down a wall between the star and the public.

In the first episodes of Pam & Tommy, Pamela Anderson remains in the background. Unexpectedly, the story initially focuses on a carpenter screwed over by Tommy Lee. Seth Rogen plays Rand, the vengeful construction worker who steals Lee’s safe and finds the sex tape. When Rand decides to find a publisher for the tape, he barely considers her except as a pawn to make his fortune. Rand barely even registers Pam’s existence; she’s an extension of her impulsive and over-sexed husband. She’s just a beautiful image, a reflection of America’s greatest desires. 

As the series pivots and expands, though, Pamela Anderson comes into focus. Naturally sweet, she softens any of her anxieties or fears to comfort those around her. She wants to be a movie star like Jane Fonda because Fonda “never tried to please anyone.” Anderson is tired of pleasing others, and she’s tired of being just one thing. Fonda was allowed to be “a feminist and a sex object.” Anderson wants to take back control. 

Much like last year’s Framing Britney, which shed new light on the toxic tabloid culture that ran young women stars ragged, this series explores the “real” person behind the scandal. Anderson’s grace and loving attitude are tested at every turn, as she suffers at the hands of her husband’s abuse and Rand’s vindictiveness. While the series tackles many issues — privacy, consent, pornography and celebrity — it’s more fundamentally about the redemption of Pamela Anderson in the public eye. 

The best moments of the series are centred on private, “in-between” moments focused on Anderson right before leaving her car on set or an intimate moment after her premiere — moments where we see the seams and get a glimpse at the “real” Anderson. Lily James not only has an incredible physical transformation, but she also channels an intense vulnerability in her portrayal of Anderson. She takes the image of the innocent sex kitten persona and breaks it down. Anderson wants to be seen for who she is, but the larger her image looms, the smaller she becomes. If the series is worth your time, it’s 100% due to her.

James does give a phenomenal experience, but it’s not enough. The series itself can’t quite strike a balance between navel-gazing and incisive cultural commentary. It provides us with the illusion that we are learning more about the “real” Anderson; it’s again working and building on assumptions and half-truths. The illusion of authenticity and intimacy is as ruinous as the grosser speculations from tabloid press and late-night talk show hosts. They also assumed they knew Anderson enough to reduce her to a piece of meat. As this series promises to lift the veil on those assumptions, unveiling something “truer,” it falls into the same trappings. 

Pam & Tommy, much like Framing Britney, presents itself as a “true” history intended to right past wrongs. They aim to smash down a wall between the star and the public, bringing us closer together. As society has shifted towards social media, where celebrities have more power and connection to their people than ever, this authenticity belies a new artifice. We don’t have any closed doors anymore, and our whole lives are on display. The private moments of realness are gone and lost forever. The series offers us a chance to look in on something never intended for us. It offers up Anderson’s darkest and most private moments once again, but for a more noble “cause.” Crucially, Anderson was not a willing participant in the series (Lily James has said Anderson did not return her calls) and through friends has expressed to the media her discomfort with this period of her life being revived. As the series seeks to reinstate her dignity, shouldn’t that be taken into account? 

Lily James as Pamela Anderson in Pam & Tommy

Some of the best moments (notably Tommy Lee’s talking penis) only contribute to the overall sense of unease. Turning someone’s worst moments into a piece of lurid entertainment, even under the guise of progressiveness, doesn’t sit right. The series seems to say, “isn’t it great that we can now see Pamela Anderson as human?” But in 2022, under the weight of a more substantial culture rot — is that enough? And, in the grand scope of things, does the series treat Anderson as someone greater than this moment, or does it only serve to further define her life by it? Anderson, a long-time activist, continually finds herself undermined by jokes and humiliation. It seems negligible that this series will shift focus on her substance rather than the surface we’ve already been presented with.

Like the Free Britney movement that now reckons with the fact that the “free Britney” may not be the person they imagined, Pamela Anderson continually finds herself trapped in a prison of expectations. In Episode 6 of the series, while having her makeup done for her first Playboy shoot, Anderson’s mother compares her to Marilyn Monroe — Playboy’s first (though unwilling) cover star. Both Spears and Anderson fit into a similar mould set forth by Marilyn Monroe: the innocent sex bomb who struggles to grow up and be taken seriously. They’re an American stereotype pre-destined to tragedy, trapped eternally in a pressure to perform and conform to our strict image of them. 

If Pam & Tommy confronts harsh truths about its audience, it only does it halfway. Pamela Anderson may come across as more human, but not in a way that challenges the audience. I do not doubt that Anderson is as loving and gentle as she seems onscreen, but it also feels like a disservice to paint her as a soft, hopeless “sex kitten.” Even as she stands up for herself, her trajectory from victim to victor feels too scripted, too clean. It all feels like a set-up to make us feel better without any real insight into our nature and how little we’ve changed. ■

The first three episodes of Pam & Tommy are now streaming on Disney Plus, with new episodes airing weekly.

Pam & Tommy (streaming on Disney Plus)

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