“Pam & Tommy” Review: The Internet is for porn


Episode 4 of Hulu’s “Pam & Tommy” begins when the pamsextape.com website is loaded onto a mid-1990s IBM desktop computer: the flamboyant font screaming “PAMELA’S HARDCORE SEX VIDEO”, teasing photos of Pamela Anderson and her husband Tommy Lee uploading one strip of pixels at a time.

After seeing the scene, I typed the URL into my browser, for journalism. Surprise! The site is still there, loads faster now, the 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 retained the page as something of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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

Put the two parts together and you get a lively hybrid of comedy robbery, romance, and cautionary tale, whose contrasting parts offer a dark cartoon portrait of one era and a disturbing preview of another: the crude future and Internet panoptic, arriving at 28.8 kilobits per second.

Like so many grief stories, this one begins with a home renovation. In 1995, Rand Gauthier (Seth Rogen), a porn actor turned contractor, is hired by the fickle Tommy (Sebastian Stan) to build a sexual Xanadu complete with mirrors and a stripper rod, then fired and stiffened for thousands of dollars. The opening scenes – Rand pounding to the sound of the newlyweds’ hoarse pairing – give a subtle directorial tone like Tommy’s banana hammock briefs.

As revenge, Rand steals the couple’s safe, which contains, among other valuables, the now infamous homemade sex tape. Look for a contact in the world of porn (Nick Offerman, his performance so impeccably greasy you’ll need soap to wash it off), who realizes he has something valuable but non-monetizable: no one will sell it.

That is, no one until a visit to the nascent World Wide Web to purchase plumbing supplies makes Rand realize that he has access to an anonymous global electronic marketplace. Faster than you might say http-colon-slash-slash, a business is born and a media frenzy breaks out.

In Rand’s mind, a self-taught of world religions, it is a righteous tool of karma. But what she’s doing amounts to what we now call revenge porn, a breach that mostly ends up targeting a woman, not the man Rand is said to be taking revenge on. (That website doesn’t advertise “TOMMY’S HARDCORE SEX VIDEO”, after all.)

In the end, “Pam & Tommy”, created by Robert Siegel, is primarily the story of Pam. But it takes time to get there, which is either his boldest move or his biggest failure, or maybe both.

The opening focuses on Rand – less mean than schmo, an unfortunate angry mullet – and a parody of Pam and Tommy’s whirlwind courtship. The “Baywatch” star is a personification of the beach ideal of sex bombs, the drummer of Mötley Crüe a glamorous caricature of stiff masculinity. It’s like watching two action figures come to life and mate.

At first it seems that “Pam & Tommy” tries to exploit its exploitation and also feel superior to it. It invites you to see the whole thing as many people did at the time (especially nighttime hosts like Jay Leno, played by Adam Ray), as a tabloid escapade where a couple of trashy celebs get exposed. When “jokes write themselves”, as a writer of “Tonight” puts it here, they tend not to be great jokes.

But then it takes a change, which makes me believe the initial crap tone is at least partly intentional: He starts treating his cartoons as people who feel real pain.

This is especially true of Pam, played by Lily James, thanks in part to James’ devious and complex performance. In a story that loves to go big and wide (Stan plays Tommy as a lustful wind-up toy), he finds subtleties in a woman that Hollywood and the media want to turn into a sexual cartoon.

On the set of “Baywatch,” where producers cut her lines and worry about the fit of her swimsuit, Pam smiles, nods, and makes her way to a major agency. When the video goes public, she’s savvy enough to know that what’s just an embarrassment to Tommy – perhaps even a publicity boost – is far more devastating to her.

She also realizes that her shrewd decision to sue Penthouse magazine for posting photos of the video will expose her further. The best episode of the series, written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Hannah Fidell, interrupts her humiliating deposition in the case with her discovery as a model and Playboy Playmate, warned by Hugh Hefner (Mike Seely) against people who want her to become “the Pamela they want.” The theft and sale of her most intimate moments is the definitive example.

In many ways, “Pam & Tommy” is Malibu’s cousin from last year’s “Impeachment” about Monica Lewinsky. It’s also a story about how the nascent Web helped tabloid stories leap into mainstream media in the 1990s and a retelling of a “sex scandal” that was truly a disgrace to high-tech sluts.

There is a lot of 90s nostalgia in “Pam & Tommy”. (There was a time, guys, when there were “sex tapes”. actually tapes.) But there is also a definite idea about the paradoxical sexual mores of the era “Private parts” and “There is something about Mary”, when popular culture was becoming more obscene and sexually open but still more restrictive in the margin of maneuver that granted women with respect to Mary. men.

The result is a more erratic and less realistic narrative than “Impeachment”, but whose absurd leaps bring his era to life more vividly. It also has more creative, ahem, practical effects when Tommy has a debate with his own penis – brightly voiced by Jason Mantzoukas – swinging and gesticulating like something from a “Dumbo” remake.

How it all works depends in part on how well you believe a feminist media retrospective can coexist with talking genitals. “Pam & Tommy” isn’t consistent in tone or argument, but it’s consistently funny. He invites you to join in with a wacky comedy, then, as Pam endures a visit to the “Tonight” show with the mischievous Leno, he gives her the last word: “This isn’t funny.”