Pop Culture Happy Hour
'Pam & Tommy' turns a punchline into a sympathetic tale
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains mention of domestic violence.
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HARRIS: The Hulu miniseries "Pam And Tommy" is about what was arguably the first viral celebrity sex tape featuring "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson and Motley Crue rocker Tommy Lee, played by Lily James and Sebastian Stan. This is the latest '90s scandal to get the dramatization and reassessment treatment on screen, and like, say, "American Crime Story: Impeachment," the series seeks to humanize and elicit empathy for a woman who was once the subject of ruthless ridicule and derision. But does it actually succeed? I'm Aisha Harris, and today we're talking about "Pam And Tommy" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HARRIS: Joining me today is NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon. Hey, Barrie. Welcome back.
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Hey. Thank you - nice to see you.
HARRIS: So in "Pam And Tommy," Lily James and Sebastian Stan star as Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Yet the series does not begin from either of their perspectives but rather from the perspective of Rand Gauthier, who's played by Seth Rogen. Now, Rand is a contractor working on the newlywed couple's mansion and is fed up with Tommy's outrageous demands and unwillingness to pay for his time and effort. So Rand seeks revenge by stealing a safe from Tommy's garage and unwittingly stumbles upon Tommy and Pam's sex tape. He teams up with pornographer Uncle Miltie, played by Nick Offerman, to sell and distribute copies of the VHS tape. But they soon lose control over the operation as bootlegs flood the market, other opportunists try to cash in and the tension reaches the mainstream.
Most of the events are taking place between 1995 and 1997, and the show goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the internet was still in its infancy, so there's lots of dial-up tones and moments of waiting for websites to load very slowly (laughter). The series is also very intent on depicting Pam and Tommy as sympathetic figures and victims of revenge porn, something that seems obvious to us now but was definitely not how a lot of society thought of the leak at the time. "Pam And Tommy" was created by Rob Siegel, and it's based off of a Rolling Stone story reported by Amanda Chicago Lewis. The miniseries is now streaming on Hulu.
So, Barrie, what do you think about "Pam And Tommy"? How are you feeling about it?
HARDYMON: You know, I'm Gen X. I want to dive back into all the '90s, you know, appreciation and rewrapping of these times. I like it from a nostalgic point of view. I think that the performances are, in the case of Lily James, kind of extraordinary. I think she's just wonderful. And I was sort of prepared to be like - maybe I think she's acting really well because they've done such a good job of, like, making her up.
HARRIS: Yeah, she looks completely different.
HARDYMON: It's amazing. It's, like, really, really far from "Downton."
HARDYMON: But she is actually - really imbues this, like, with real pathos. It's - you know, it's - I guess the thing I would say about it is that it's hard to describe what this wants to be. It's, like, kind of a screwball comedy at first.
HARDYMON: And then we're sort of in this nostalgia land and, you know, how female stars were treated in the '90s, which I am here for. But I also - this is not the first entry into that market.
HARRIS: Not in the least.
HARDYMON: So it's like - you know, it's, like, hard for me to watch this and not be like, I'd kind of watch - I'd be happy to watch "Framing Britney Spears" again, you know?
HARDYMON: But if you marry that screwball stuff with the Pamela-Anderson-was-a-victim stuff, which is absolutely true - when you marry that too much, you sort of end up trafficking in a little bit of the exploitation that you're talking about.
HARDYMON: You know?
HARDYMON: And I know the fact that, like - this is not like the Monica Lewinsky-Ryan Murphy collab. Like, this is a woman who - reports say that she did not want to revisit this trauma.
HARDYMON: So that kind of hung over it for me. I don't know if it did for you, too.
HARRIS: I mean, I had pretty much the exact same experience where I was very much into the performances. I appreciated the way in which the show really takes you back in time to the mid-'90s...
HARRIS: ...When the internet was still new and where even someone who was rich and famous, like Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson, had to go to the library to use the internet.
HARDYMON: Oh, so good. That was amazing.
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SEBASTIAN STAN: (As Tommy Lee) What is this?
LILY JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) What is what?
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) This - HTTP what?
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) That's a website. They're making one for "Barb Wire."
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) This is how he's selling this.
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) I don't know. I really don't get it.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) We have a computer.
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) We have a computer. It's in the downstairs den. But we don't have the web. It's this thing you plug your phone into.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) OK, so who has it? Where do we get the web?
HARRIS: Like, they didn't know. They're like, where can we go? It's like, I guess we've got to go the library.
HARDYMON: Right, right.
HARRIS: So I really like that. I think the show does a really good job of sort of getting at that point in time and reminding us or telling the younger folks...
HARRIS: ...The younger people who might be watching, like, this is what it was like. It was like the Wild West. There was no rules, and everyone was just trying to figure stuff out. And the way in which that factors into the way Rand and Uncle Miltie are putting this video out there, the fact that they have to put the news of the video and people could buy it on the internet...
HARDYMON: Right, right.
HARRIS: ...But they had to ship it - like, all of these things - it's like...
HARDYMON: It's a whole process. It's, like - it's a challenge for sequencing.
HARDYMON: You know? They really have got it.
HARRIS: Yeah. So I loved those touches, but at the same time, I agree with you. There is such a tonal shift between it all because, like, what I think the show is trying to do is it's trying to make us take these two people who, in real life, were presented as caricatures to all of us and make them human. And I think it does that, or it doesn't at least deny how kind of weird they are...
HARRIS: ...Because I think there's a way to say that they're human but also say, like, these people were also kind of weird. They got married after four days...
HARRIS: ...Of knowing each other. Like, that whole...
HARDYMON: The licking the face.
HARDYMON: The atmosphere at the club, like...
HARRIS: The first time they meet at the club is just kind of - I think it's actually, like, a really fun sequence.
HARRIS: The way that is shot and edited - it's, like, great.
HARDYMON: And it's very - like, it was, like, the reason that I was reading US Weekly in the '90s. Like, I wanted to see those - there was something about it that really brought me back as, like, a person flipping through magazines.
HARRIS: Yeah, it definitely had that tabloid quality but, like, wanting to approach it with more substance.
HARRIS: But at the end of the day, there's so many scenes where we are, if not seeing clips of the tape or, like, the re-enactment of the tape...
HARRIS: ...We are hearing it. And we are...
HARDYMON: Oh, my God.
HARRIS: Like, over and over. And I just keep thinking, well, OK. Isn't this just, in some ways, reiterating or re-exploiting her again...
HARRIS: ...In a way?
HARDYMON: All over again.
HARRIS: So I think that it has noble intentions. And there's so many scenes where you are seeing the perspective of both of these characters. And Tommy Lee - he's still treated as a victim sort of because there are moments where he gets upset when people are like, yeah, this is your best thing you've done since, like, your last album.
HARDYMON: Right. And he's like, we haven't had a hit in so long. Right. Right. Right. Yeah.
HARRIS: I know. So there's, like, a little bit of an "A Star Is Born" thing going on there, too, because Pamela Anderson is supposed to be shooting up with "Baywatch" and hopefully getting a movie career.
HARRIS: But it does - like, there are lots of scenes where her character is saying, like, this is different for you. They're out to get me. And they think that just because I, you know, flaunt my body that I also wanted this tape out. And that's not the case.
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STAN: (As Tommy Lee) I'm on that tape just the same as you.
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Yeah, but this is worse for me. I mean, this is way worse.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) How is this worse for you? Why - because of your big career?
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) No.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) So much bigger than mine.
JAMES: (As Pamela Anderson) Tommy, it's not because of my big career. It's because I'm a woman. People are going to think you're cool for this. Me - I'm going to get looked at like a slut by the whole world.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) That's ridiculous.
HARRIS: And so it's an interesting balance, and it's a little bit less, like, clear-cut, I think, than something like "Impeachment."
HARDYMON: Right. You know, obviously, Ryan Murphy has made an art of this genre. And, you know, I watched the O.J. one and the Versace one and the Monica one. And I think they're all very interesting and of varying quality, right? But I guess, like, the thing that I want is that I want the person at the center to have decided that they want to process that trauma. So, like, you know, Monica Lewinsky has made a career of reaching out to other people who are - you know what I mean? Like, and then the other thing about it - and I don't know. I will say, like, I may be one of maybe only five people at NPR that has read Tommy Lee's biography, "Tommyland."
HARDYMON: Some of the source material clearly came from "Tommyland," which is the biography, and some of it came from this Rolling Stone article. And one of those is, like, not like the other.
HARDYMON: And so some of that is just some, like, basic, like, when you look at a narrative, you want to make sure that you've, like, sown the narrative together. There's a moment where because - and this is direct from the autobiography - where Tommy Lee has a conversation with his penis.
HARRIS: Here, voiced by Jason Mantzoukas (laughter).
HARDYMON: Who clearly was born to play the role.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah. It was perfect casting, perfect casting.
HARDYMON: So, you know, that whole silly screwball oddness to it - it just doesn't quite hang together for me, and - even though there are places where I was moved. And I guess, like, we've really - this is like the - how many entries that we had in the, like, looking back at the '90s, it was very hard to be a lady, you know?
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.
HARDYMON: Is the genre over? Like, is there something - like, can we move forward from this? Is there...
HARRIS: I think that's a question I've been asking myself as well. And part of it for me is like, how are we talking about the women who are at the forefront right now? Like, that's my concern. Like, how are we talking about Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion - I don't know - Jennifer Lawrence, like all these, like, younger women who are now kind of at their peak or reaching their peak? Like, how are we discussing them now? - because if we're not treating them well now, are we really just going to be in 20 years doing the same thing that we've done with Janet and with...
HARRIS: ...Britney and with Pam Anderson? Like, are we still going to be doing that? Now, I think it is different. I think, for one thing, we have way more women and women of color who are blogging and writing for publications who are able to talk about these things in more nuanced ways than most of the journalists were back then, so that's good. I still wonder, like, have we really moved the needle much, like, or are we just going to keep doing, like, hindsight is 20/20, which is - it's not - which is not useful (laughter).
HARDYMON: Right. It's like, you couldn't have played the football game right from the beginning, you know? Like, you don't have to do this on Monday morning.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. I'm also glad that you mentioned the Tommy book because I sure as heck haven't read it, but one thing that I think is worth noting - and I'm not sure - I don't know if the show, the way it is set up, totally was equipped to handle this. But, like, they don't even touch this - the fact that he was arrested for assaulting her while she was holding one of their sons, a baby, and even went to jail for a few months for it. I think that the fact that the show doesn't - it presents their love story as, like, just pure and beautiful. Like, he's always, like, cheerleading her.
HARRIS: And, yeah, maybe he did do that. But also, like, there's this other side of him. I don't know. Again, I don't know if this show was equipped to deal with that, but I do think that is something that just kind of speaks, again, to the sort of queasiness that I have with how much I also enjoyed a lot of it. I mean, we haven't even talked about sort of the Seth Rogen rant of it all, but it is half his story because he is sort of presented at first as, like, you know, the everyman who's, like - who's kind of ignored, and you feel bad for him at first because Tommy is clearly, like, an annoying person to work for.
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SETH ROGEN: (As Rand Gauthier) I just finished this.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) So? You yank out a couple of nails.
ROGEN: (As Rand Gauthier) It's just a little more complicated than that.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) How complicated can it be?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Moving it at this stage - it's going to cost.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Cost? What'd I say when we first started this job?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Money is no object.
STAN: (As Tommy Lee) Correctamundo (ph).
HARDYMON: There is this, like, setting him up in this highly sympathetic way. And then, you know, his, like, Uncle Miltie - and, oh, my God. Nick Offerman is just - I mean, he is born to, like, oil out of this role.
HARDYMON: Like, he is bleh (ph). Like, I feel bad for him, but I don't. Like, it's - I still feel so queasy about that character, and I feel like the show is trying to tell me that it's OK that he stole this tape because of X, Y and Z, you know?
HARRIS: I don't know. Maybe. I don't know. I feel like it starts off being very sympathetic, but then there are moments where other characters, including his, like, estranged wife, who he's still sort of friends with...
HARDYMON: Yes. Yes.
HARRIS: ...Played by Taylor Schilling - I don't know. He has an arc. Again, I agree with you. There is this weird sort of tonal shift that's happening that makes it hard to love this show.
HARDYMON: But also, meanwhile, Seth Rogen is, like, great.
HARDYMON: This kind of schlumpy, world-against-me dude.
HARRIS: Yeah, aggrieved dude. Yeah.
HARDYMON: He's like born to play it. And he did have, like, that touch of menace. I always like seeing him play a less likable character.
HARDYMON: Like, likable seems to have been his currency for so long that this is kind of interesting, even though, you know, I'm not sure it exactly succeeds. But yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. So we've already talked about sort of, like, where do we go from here? But, like, is there any other show or project that you think would be good in terms of, like, relitigating the past? (Laughter). Like, is there anything that you can think of that, like, would feel new or different?
HARDYMON: I mostly want to see these women themselves in conversation with, like you say, women who are out there in that same position today. So...
HARDYMON: You know, like you do - you want to see Janet Jackson talking to Cardi B.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah, I would love that.
HARDYMON: We need to sort of, like, bring it together - actresses, stars telling their own stories. And that's, I think, where I'm most interested.
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, we want to know what you all think about "Pam & Tommy." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And one last thing before we go - we're going to be talking about another thing of the '90s, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (laughter). And we definitely want your questions. You can email us a voice memo with your question to email@example.com. Again, send us a voice memo with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. And that brings us to the end of our show. Barrie, it's been so great to have you here.
HARDYMON: That was so fun. Thank you.
HARRIS: And we will see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "Euphoria."
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