The fourth episode of Hulu’s Pam & Tommy opens with a tight shot of an early-’90s-era web browser booting up. There’s the low hum of the computer’s processor whirling about, and the cacophony of white noise as a page slowly loads. And then, the four infamous words that upended celebrity culture and revolutionized the porn industry flash across the screen in bold red and white letters: PAMELA’S HARDCORE SEX VIDEO. “Raw and Uncensored” and “Pamela Anderson Like You’ve Never Seen Her Before” are written above a few steamy stills from the video and a button to order a copy for “the low price of just $59.95.”
The camera then pulls back to reveal a man browsing the illicit site inside a coffee shop before moving through the haphazard network of processes that made it possible for him to get his hands on the tape, which he promptly watches with Kleenex and a bottle of lotion nearby. It’s one of the many scenes of Pam & Tommy that capture the duality of Hulu’s limited series.
Those of us who can remember a time before AOL dial-up understand there was the world before the video of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee having sex on their honeymoon was illegally sold, and the world after. Hulu’s eight-episode miniseries tells the zany—but true—tale of how the private home video was stolen by a disgruntled contractor and widely marketed as the first celebrity sex tape during the halcyon days of the World Wide Web and is adapted from a 2014 Rolling Stone piece.
It was the mid-’90s. A time when we were still renting VHS tapes from Blockbuster and watching MTV daily. There was no DVR, no second screening. No Twitter or Instagram or TikTok to distract us. We weren’t harnessing the power of the Internet in the way we do now. Every part of our lives wasn’t integrated with smart devices yet. And as Pam & Tommy reminds us, we certainly didn’t have the voyeuristic access to see celebrities having sex on camera (with or without their consent).
Beneath the nostalgia of the series—which stars Lily James and Sebastian Stan as a perfectly rendered portrait of the couple, with some help from prosthetics—is an attempt at reframing this notorious chapter in the annals of celebrity history as the brazen sex crime it was.
When Pam and Tommy married in February 1995 after dating for four days, their whirlwind romance became a public obsession. She was the Playboy Playmate and Baywatch babe, and he was the tatted-up, hard-partying drummer from Mötley Crüe. Pam and Tommy were the very personification of sex, drugs and rock and roll—smoking hot, crazy about each other, gloriously hedonistic and unrestrained in their public displays of affection.
As viewers see their relationship quickly flourish, they also watch a fed-up contractor, Rand (played by Seth Rogen), plot revenge on Tommy after he abruptly fired him before denying him pay and threatening him with a gun. [Note: Tommy’s volatile ways led to numerous legal issues, including a six-month jail sentence in 1998 for assaulting Anderson while she held their infant son.]
The idea was to steal Tommy’s safe, where he kept vintage guns and guitars, and flip it to make up for the lost income from the gig. It was the rightful karma for pampered celebrities having abused the little guy, Rand told himself. But when he discovers the safe also contained a home video of the couple having sex on their honeymoon, he seizes the opportunity to disrupt the porn industry by selling it online without the consent of its stars.
In two years the tape went from underground bootleg to the first viral video of the Internet age, earning an estimated $77 million in less than 12 months—not counting the many bootlegs that passed between hands. Though the couple tried to fight the release, it was too late. Anyone with the capability to duplicate the tape could sell it themselves, and that they did. Copies were sold out on the street and in bodegas, something we’d see when “sex tapes” from Paris Hilton and R. Kelly went wide without anyone caring that they were released without the consent of those in the video—which in the case of Kelly was an underage girl being sexually assaulted on camera, one of many incidents of alleged sex crimes the superstar R&B singer was accused of.
The circumstances around how we’re able to see celebrities engaging in sex acts are typically ignored. Although the first few episodes spend of Pam & Tommy spends too much time portraying the couple as goofy and vapid caricatures worthy of the ridicule we gave them back then, there’s a tone shift starting with the fourth episode as the series begins to unpack the toxicity of celebrity culture in the tabloid era by showing how our curiosity around the private sex lives of celebrities became a big business that would continue for the next decade and beyond. It’s worth noting the fourth episode was helmed by actress-writer Lake Bell and the last few episodes have been written and directed by women with the first three being written and directed by men—which maybe explains why someone thought it might be compelling to have a scene where Tommy’s dick talks to him.
From the fourth episode on, there’s an effort to do some important cultural work around our victimization of Pamela Anderson and the exploitation she faced with the video’s release (though considering the series was made without the participation of her and her ex-husband one wouldn’t be incorrect in arguing its existence as exploitive).
When the tape leaked, Tommy Lee was celebrated for the impressive size of his dick and how he used it, but Pamela was diminished as a bimbo. Because she had posed for Playboy, wore tiny leather dresses and sky-high heels and had double-D breast implants, she was slut shamed for filming sex with her husband. Tommy was heralded for having a dick long enough to steer a boat with, and yet Pamela faced judgment and shame from the public. She had already bared her flesh, so she had no right to expect the public to respect her privacy when it came to a home video stolen from her home. That’s how she was treated. We hung it over her head, much like we did with Paris Hilton and with Kim Kardashian—even still, despite all of what those women built separate from whatever fame and infamy came with their private moments being bootlegged.
Like Pamela and Tommy, our access to footage of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian having sex with their boyfriends was the result of a sex crime. Their private moments were exposed to the world without their consent, and we shamed them for it. We ridiculed these women for flipping their invasions of privacy into profit, and we remind them of their public humiliation anytime we offer critique about them. Where Pam & Tommy is most effective in its storytelling is when it invites viewers to consider how little care was given to Pamela. She was the one being advertised. She was the draw. She was the one who faced the brunt of public scrutiny, and she was the one who had to endure questions about her vagina and having sex in public by lawyers for Penthouse when she and Tommy sued to prevent them from publishing images from the tape.
But the series is also a not-so-subtle wink at who we are as people and how the thrill of watching celebrities having sex has only intensified in the nearly 30 years since a contractor threw a white Tibetan yak fur rug over his back and crawled into Pamela and Tommy’s house in the middle of the night and robbed them of their property.
On a seemingly regular basis, there’s a new “scandal” involving the leaking of nude photos from a celebrity or a clip of them engaging in sex. In just last few weeks Nelly, B2K's Lil Fizz, Isiah Rashad and Big Sean have trended due to videos or images of them leaking. With the exception of Rashad, who was the target of revenge porn that potentially outed him, the clips and photos were widely shared and joked about online without any regard for those involved (though to be fair, Fizz's video was uploaded to his OnlyFans account).
The network of processes making it possible for us to get access to the leaked images/videos is far simpler now, thanks to the ease of social media, but the crime still remains the same. And while Pam & Tommy is a glimpse of a time when it wasn’t as easy for us to get our hands on the illicit sex lives of the rich and famous, it’s a reminder that our gawking isn't a victimless crime—even if the anonymity of the Internet allows us to keep believing otherwise.