When I started watching Pam and Tommy, the seven-part docudrama about the infamous sex tape that became the first viral video, I admit I was looking for cheap thrills.
A similarly COVID-risk-averse friend and I have a standing date to watch trashy TV while on the phone together, and the Hulu/Disney+ show about Baywatch star Pamela Anderson and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee seemed to fit the bill.
I wasn’t really expecting the series to be funny and well-made, let alone make me feel any sympathy for a notoriously reprehensible human being.
Sebastian Stan and Lily James play Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson in "Pam & Tommy." (Erin Simkin/Hulu)
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read the band’s oral history, The Dirt, and I have no respect for any of the reprobates who make up Mötley Crüe.
In fact, having to review their 1999 Winnipeg Arena show was one of the nails in the coffin of my music writing career.
I’m no hair-metal aficionado, but I grew up in the ‘80s and I have enough nostalgic appreciation for the glitter, glam and guitar licks of the genre to enjoy a good concert. However, when Lee, who was just coming off serving time for spousal abuse, had a spotlight scan the arena and encouraged any woman it landed on to “show us your t-ts” (sadly, many complied), I felt a soul-deep sense of second-hand abasement that made me realize this was perhaps not the correct line of work for me.
That said, the concert also provided a moment of surprising warmth — a window, however small, into the band’s humanity.
The Crüe was on its Greatest Hits Tour, but evidently those hits weren’t great enough to draw a full arena — grunge had eclipsed glam-metal by ‘99 — so the venue was cut in half to form a concert bowl.
This meant that from where reviewers were perched, up in the catwalk high above the seats, I could see down to a little green room area that was curtained off beside the stage.
In between the main set and the encore, the band members gathered for a quick feathered-hair refresher, a lot of hairspray and head-tossing that called to mind the girls’ bathroom in my junior high, where a fog of Final Net hung heavy in the air. It was weirdly sweet.
Motley Crue performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Al Powers/Powers Imagery/Invision/AP)
And then all four collected in a circle and put their hands, one on top of the other, in the centre before raising them exultantly in a gesture familiar from peewee soccer games everywhere. It felt like a time-honoured ritual, something they’d been doing since their scrappy Sunset Strip days, when all they had to their names was a single Maybelline eyeliner and shared case of chlamydia, but dammit, they were happy. It made them seem human, a bit silly, relatable.
From what I’ve watched so far, Pam and Tommy — which stars an unrecognizable Lily James (Downton Abbey) and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) — has the same effect, taking the notoriously cartoonish couple from a punchline to real people. (Of course, the empathy you feel is in direct conflict with the fact the you’re still enjoying a salacious tale that takes advantage of their pain: actor/director Lake Bell, who worked on the series, talked about this with Tom Power on Q this week.)
And be warned, it also features a digitally enhanced talking penis (voiced by a frequent portrayer of scumbags, Jason Mantzoukas of Big Mouth and Brooklyn 99). Keep in mind this show airs on Disney+; I imagine ol’ Walt is either spinning in his cryogenic chamber or trying to figure out ways to place the chatty character in the pantheon of famous Disney sidekicks: Tinkerbell, Jiminy Cricket, Tommy’s Giant Schlong.