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‘The Thing About Pam’ Review: Renée Zellweger’s True-Crime Cartoon

Adapting a "Dateline" podcast based on five "Dateline" reports, NBC's scripted limited series is a dark comic reenactment of one long, crude cover-up.

THE THING ABOUT PAM -- "She's a Good Friend" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp  -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/NBC)

Renée Zellweger in “The Thing About Pam”

Skip Bolen / NBC

When it comes to Pam Hupp — the small-town Missouri resident currently serving a life sentence for first-degree murder — no one thing defines her. And no one knows that better than the people at NBC. Just a periphery character in the 2014 “Dateline” report titled, “The House on Sumac Drive,” Hupp’s presence steadily grew as NBC News continued to investigate the death of Betsy Faria, resulting in four follow-up episodes over the next five years. The final entry, also titled “The Thing About Pam,” teed up “Dateline’s” first podcast, which is now the basis for NBC’s scripted limited series of the same name.

One could argue audiences can’t get enough of Hupp’s twisted tale — or, just as easily, that Jack Donaghy’s lessons in synergy have not been forgotten at the Peacock. Either way, the quantity of stories derived from one woman’s horrific actions necessitate varied takes on her motivation, her mindset, and her history. That Hupp never agreed to sit down with “Dateline” makes room for showrunner Jenny Klein’s adaptation to pull back the curtain on the elusive subject, and the cheeky episode titles — “She’s a Good Friend,” “She’s a Helper,” “She’s a Loving Daughter” — embrace the confounding complexities of this oft-discussed killer.

The series itself does not. While providing superficial nods to Pam’s grievances, “The Thing About Pam” repeatedly recedes into a one-note character study, a regression only emphasized by Renée Zellweger’s exaggerated lead performance. Pam Hupp is a villain. A bad, bad lady. A killer who loved twisting the knife long before she stabbed her best friend 55 times. If you’re looking for any further insight, look elsewhere. The thing about “The Thing About Pam” is that its main interest is making fun.

That inclination cuts both ways. Narrated by “Dateline’s” Keith Morrison, the series starts (as the news reports did) at the house on Sumac Drive, where Russ Faria (Glenn Fleshler) discovers the lifeless body of his wife, Betsy (Katy Mixon). Overwhelmed with grief, Russ calls 9-1-1 and can barely speak. He thinks she committed suicide, despite the multiple stab wounds; he doesn’t consider foul play until hours into a police interrogation; he doesn’t realize he’s a suspect until even later. But by then, the cops have narrowed their sights on Russ, even convincing the county prosecutor, Leah Askey (Judy Greer), that they’ve found their killer.

THE THING ABOUT PAM -- "She's a Star Witness" Episode 103 -- Pictured: (l-r) Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp, Heather Magee as Judge Mennemeyer, Josh Duhamel as Joel Schwartz -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/NBC)

Renée Zellweger and Josh Duhamel in “The Thing About Pam”

Skip Bolen / NBC

But the audience is told Russ isn’t the killer within the first few seconds of the series. Despite time jumps, flashbacks, and fantasy sequences, there’s no attempt to create a mystery around who actually killed Betsy. Her friend Pam is the last one to see her alive. Pam forces Betsy away from her mom and two daughters, demanding she’s the one to drive Betsy home. When they get there, Pam cajoles Betsy into leaving an alibi-friendly voicemail for Pam’s husband, and — after Betsy’s dead but before Russ finds her — she calls Betsy’s phone, knowing she can’t answer, while sitting right outside her house, pretending to worry about her friend.

So no one is confused by her transparent criminality, each duplicitous move Pam makes is explained by Morrison’s blunt voiceover. The choice doubles to undercut any of the investigation’s natural suspense, trading in the question of “who did it?” for scene after scene of Pam behaving badly — even via flashback. There’s the time Pam mocks Betsy for DJ-ing Pam’s daughter’s wedding, pointing out mid-reception that Betsy “needs the money” so she’ll agree to comp the gig. (Pam, of course, is paying for the wedding.) Then there’s the time Pam punishes her child for peeing her pants by placing the urine-soaked underwear on the little girl’s head, or how Pam talks about Betsy’s earlier health issues: “Bets had a rough go with cancer, but I got through it.”

Absent any mystery, “The Thing About Pam” takes the shape of a character study, but only in bursts. Even when episodes feint toward the roots of Pam’s hateful psyche — her mother is also a manipulative piece of work — the focus never lasts long or looks too deep. Of the four episodes made available to press, the preference is to revel in her stupid mistakes (as well as the police and lead prosecutor’s) rather than find out who she is, beyond the headlines.

THE THING ABOUT PAM -- "She's a Good Friend" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp -- (Photo by: Skip Bolen/NBC)

Renée Zellweger in “The Thing About Pam”

Skip Bolen / NBC

Zellweger’s much-hyped “transformation” doesn’t help. Her prosthetics (especially a widened nose) read as deadened rubber. Her padded suit appears comically enlarged compared to the real Hupp. Combined with Zellweger’s heightened “Missourah” accent and the way she mindlessly sucks down gas station Big Gulps, the character plays up gross stereotypes that have nothing to do with her despicable actions. Investigators initially ignored Pam based on assumptions — she’s just a suburban housewife, how could she commit such a horrid crime? — but this version asks a different question: Are we supposed to revile Pam because she’s a lying, manipulative murderer, or because she’s an overweight hick?

“The Thing About Pam” doesn’t seem to care. It’s happy to let viewers’ escalating hate fuel their consumption of an admittedly wild story. The series has its clear heroes (Josh Duhamel embodies Russ’ valiant defense attorney, Joel Schwartz), genial victims (Fleshler imbues Russ with an endearing tenderness, even if Betsy deserves more attention), and plenty of villains. (This is the most you’ll ever dislike Judy Greer, bless her soul.) For a broadcast drama, it’s easy to ingest (though any story told this many times has no right to bungle timelines so badly). Its glib tone, sparse aesthetics, and “Dateline” influences give the impression of a news or documentary reenactment video. The colors are bright, the pace is swift, and there’s dark humor throughout. But it’s not believable enough to be moving or sharp enough to be satire. So… what is it?

In the premiere’s opening moments, Pam walks the audience through her imagined reality. She’s successful, her family is perfect, and her neighbors see her as “a pillar of the community” — or so Pam says, directly to the audience. Then the narration switches, cutting to a faux-interview framing, where Pam speaks to an unseen reporter just right of camera. Neither format is brought back (though I suspect the latter will emerge in the finale), but the impression sticks. This isn’t just a messy soap masquerading as a prestige limited series. It’s a true-crime cartoon. If that’s the way you want to see the story, have fun. But hopefully it’s the last thing we’ll hear for a while.

Grade: C

“The Thing About Pam” premieres Tuesday, March 8 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. New episodes will be released weekly.

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