Powerful Pam & Tommy docu-drama is about more than just stolen sex tape sensation

Raw and rewarding docu-drama deftly depicts last days of pre-internet innocence

Where: Disney+
What: Mini series, 8 episodes, 32  – 50 mins.
When: 3 episodes stream Feb. 2, new episodes weekly
Genre: Docu-drama
Why you should watch: A riveting mini-series about a key cultural moment in our time, the theft and leaking of the Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape, when even a celebrity couple proves no match for the emerging power of the internet. A complex story offering more than just the obvious prurient intrigue.

Lily James and Sebastian Stan are superb in their lead roles in Pam & Tommy, not just for their remarkable likeness to the two stars but for the depth they bring to playing two people who became among the first casualties of the internet age and for whom not even mega-stardom was preparation.

For ’90s-loving Gen Zers, as well as those who were there, Pam & Tommy captures a moment in time when the internet was not yet ubiquitous — it was barely known — and was about to change forever. Watching a character explain “the worldwide web” to another seems almost unbelievable and the ancient sounds of modem dial up still can make skin crawl.

If the online sharing of the intimate moments between the rock star and TV star were the canary in the coal mine for what was to come, we didn’t get the message.

Seth Rogan masterfully plays the disgruntled contractor stiffed by Tommy Lee who steals the video from the couple, a truly heinous act, yet he is made somehow sympathetic. Rogan’s character is similar to real-life Jeff Gillooly (coincidentally played by Pam & Tommy’s Stan in the 2017 film I, Tonya, also directed by  P & T director Crag Gillespie ); both men are totally out of touch with the coming consequences of their indefensible actions.

Rogan’s character is out for some revenge, what he calls justice and karma, and he accidentally opens Pandora’s Box, unleashing internet forces heretofore unseen in this world.

Pam & Tommy is more than just a story of a rock and roll couple spinning in and out of control — though it’s pretty good at that. It also works well to explore the gender-based power dynamics in a power couple. It won’t be much of a spoiler to say, as usual, misogyny rules, and Anderson is forced to explore and employ all the survival tools women must muster in navigating a patriarchal world.

The unequal impact of the leaked sex tape is as painful as it is consistent with the price women always pay in these matters. While Lee gets celebratory high fives in bars for his dong size, as revealed on the tape, Anderson is slut-shamed and hounded, her career stalled by the controversy, her story hijacked by the relentless drum beats of gossip and speculation.

For related viewing, check out the awesome doc Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, on Crave, exploring how Janet Jackson and her “co-conspirator” Justin Timberlake had such different fallout from “Nipplegate”; she paid a huge price, personally and career-wise, while Timberlake’s star skyrocketed after the incident.

Pam & Tommy also shows the last days of Mötley Crüe-fuelled glam rock as Lee’s band is overshadowed by the arrival of grunge. Battling porn publishers Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and Penthouse’s Bob Guccione also make key appearances.

There’s even a scene shot at a CFL game — that’s the Canadian Football League for readers under 60 — depicting Anderson’s “discovery” by a beer company executive after she appears on the jumbotron at a game in Vancouver, near her hometown of Ladysmith, B.C.

And don’t let the cameo by a talking penis early in the film turn you off because Pam & Tommy is better than that. It’s a well-told exploration of a critical cultural moment as well as a powerful affirmation of Anderson as yet another woman cagier than the airhead image that both served and then trapped her. Look for Anderson to be re-claimed by this generation the same way Paris Hilton has.