The Thing About Pam review: Renée Zellweger goes big in NBC's entertaining true-crime oddity
The Thing About Pam (TV series)
If you've seen the trailer for The Thing About Pam — featuring a prosthetically tumid Renée Zellweger taking numerous noisy slurps from a mega-cup of convenience store soda — then you know that this six-part adaptation of the Dateline podcast is not playing it straight. And thank the TV gods for that. With its zippy tone of cocked-eyebrow camp, the limited NBC series about convicted murderer Pam Hupp is a welcome departure from the current avalanche of poker-faced true-crime efforts.
Pam Hupp's bizarre and circuitous route from Missouri house-flipper to infamous tabloid-TV killer has done big business for Dateline (five episodes, plus a hit podcast), and the team behind Pam doesn't try to fix what isn't broken. The first voice viewers hear in the premiere is that of longtime Dateline NBC host Keith Morrison, who narrates the scripted series with his deep, potboiler purr.
It's December 27, 2011, and a man named Russ Faria (Glenn Fleshler) has just found his wife, Betsy (Katy Mixon), dead on the floor of their Troy, Mo., home with a knife in her neck. Soon enough, Russ will be the prime suspect — thanks in part to Betsy's best friend, Pam (Zellweger), who regales the investigating officers with tales of Russ' "aggressive" temper. It's only after Russ takes the fall for his wife's murder that his tenacious lawyer, Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel), uncovers Pam's motives for wanting her best friend dead.
At first, the show comes on a little strong with the whimsy. We're not even three minutes in when Pam, dressed in an all-white pantsuit, starts talking to the camera, introducing herself and her family — husband Mark (Sean Bridgers), son Travis (Drew Scheid), and daughter Sarah (Sarah Stipe) — via a corny, recruitment-style video. "I'm a pillar of the community!" she squawks in her Midwestern twang, giving us an exaggerated wink.
But Pam settles into a spirit of wry satire as it chronicles the grimly comical law enforcement ineptitude and/or cavalier disregard for the truth that allowed Pam to elude capture for so long. Newly elected county prosecutor Leah Askey (Judy Greer, an expert at funny fussbudgetry) pushes the lead detective on the case (Mac Brandt) to find solid evidence linking Russ to the crime so she can win her first big case. Schwartz and his associate (Ben Chase), meanwhile, face the challenge of getting Russ a fair trial in small-town Troy, a place where the judge and the prosecutor are old friends from high school, and everybody (including prospective jurors) hangs out at the same watering hole. (As the dogged and quick-witted Schwartz, Duhamel exudes such leading-man magnetism it'll be a crime if he doesn't walk away from Pam with another series.)
And there in the middle of it all is Pam, the last woman to see Betsy alive, as the prosecution's star witness. It would take years — and another murder — for the truth to come out.
Too often, there's a queasy note of apology running through these true-life adaptations. (Sure, Elizabeth Holmes duped people with cancer, but do you know how hard it is to be a female CEO in Silicon Valley?) The Thing About Pam lives in Dateline's world, where there are only two types of people involved in heinous crimes: victims and killers. Zellweger, her A-list face and petite frame buried under layers of artificial bulk, attacks the role with a cheeky, steely-eyed bravado. Her Pam is a master manipulator disguised as a chatty busybody, and an attention-seeking martyr capable of casual cruelty. Pam depicts the character's childhood as generally miserable — her family was poor, her mother Shirley (Celia Weston, in an exquisitely shrewish turn) a drinker with a penchant for savage insults.
Still, based on the four episodes made available for review, the show has no interest in generating sympathy for anyone other than the people Pam hurt: Betsy, Russ, and their two daughters, Mariah (Gideon Adlon) and Lily (Olivia Luccardi), who were left temporarily orphaned by their mother's murder and their stepfather's wrongful conviction. The Thing About Pam knows that sometimes villains make for the best headliners. Grade: B+
The Thing About Pam premieres March 8 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.
Sign up for Entertainment Weekly's free daily newsletter to get breaking TV news, exclusive first looks, recaps, reviews, interviews with your favorite stars, and more.
Renée Zellweger stars in this six-episode true crime series about Pam Hupp, a devoted neighbor and friend. Or at least that's what she wants you to think.