Eschewing incisiveness for post-podcast play, The Thing About Pam struggles to say anything.
The thing about The Thing About Pam is that there’s no thing there. Tonally run amuck, the limited series is a whimsical take on a deadly serious story that can’t come to grips with its darkness. There are moments to enjoy, but overall the series does little to prove itself necessary. There’s a lot of play happening, but little of it is constructive.
Oscar darling Renee Zellweger stars as Pam Hupp, a woman currently in prison convicted of killing two people, with an ongoing investigation into another murder. The series focuses mainly on Hupp’s role in the mysterious death of her friend Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon), and the alleged frame-up of Betsy’s husband Russ Faria (Glenn Fleshler) for the crime.
Covered extensively on Dateline’s true-crime podcast, the real-life story behind this so-called “true crime event” is more harrowing and twisting than the series can hope to achieve. That is perhaps why series producers Zellweger, Jenny Klein (Jessica Jones, The Witcher), and Scott Winant (My So-Called Life, Californication) have opted for a more sardonic style in this retelling. Sadly, it doesn’t play out in service of anything.
The series opens with a morse yet winking tone that you might expect from a Bryan Fuller or Matthew Cherry production. In fact, the cheeky omnipotent narration provided by Dateline’s own Keith Morrison reminds us just how indebted podcast poetics are to millennial TV narrators like those on Pushing Daisies and especially Desperate Housewives. But those programs could have heightened language and aesthetics because they were fiction. The setup for the mystery at the center of the series works well within the tone, but as soon as things get serious and people, real people, start getting killed and others have their lives (unjustly) torn apart, the laughter of the gods feels unnecessarily cruel.
The wry humor works when showing the ineptitude and corruption of the local police played by Mac Brandt (Prison Break). This could have been the more fruitful angle had the showrunners decided that the gullibility and corruption of the police lead to more people being killed. Even Judy Greer’s severely-bobbed prosecutor, Leah Askey, is far too likable for any critique about systemic failure to stick. This is in large part because Greer is just so electric to watch. She’s surrounded by incompetents, but we end up more delighted by her frustration than looking more pointedly at the incompetency.
That’s because this show is for, by, and about Renee Zellweger. This was made explicitly clear by executive producer Chris McCumber when defending the horrendous fat suit Zellweger dons to play Pam, when he said “When a two-time Oscar winner calls and says, ‘I’m obsessed with this story and I want to play Pam and I want to produce, you say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes.’ And our job at that point is to provide Renee and the rest of the cast with all the tools they need to embody these characters.”
The fat suit is so wildly inhibiting and unnecessary that it’s clearly more for punchline and profit than to serve a point. Renee has all the things needed to play Pam: squinted, piercing eyes over a Big Gulp, and a cutting sense of delivery that shows the dark duality of The Midwestern Nice. But her facial movements, indeed the whole movement of her body, are impeded by the choice. Once the shock of this cakey Shallow Hal drag wears off after the first few seconds, we’re left uncomfortable and we try to understand just why all these prostheses are necessary, especially when Pam’s size bears no weight on the narrative at all.
As soon as things get serious and people, real people, start getting killed and others have their lives (unjustly) torn apart, the laughter of the gods feels unnecessarily cruel.
It’s like a whole bunch of people wanted to dress up as their favorite podcast. And in trying to find a fresh and inventive way to tell a story people already know or can easily look up, they opted to make mean-spirited fun of the thing they love. While that might work well and fine for fictional franchises or literary adaptations, these are real crimes with real people left in the wake. The series carelessly handles Pam’s children and Betsy’s children, as well as Russ’ likely innocence, turning them from private moments to “true crime events” for public entertainment.
Not to say that true crime stories shouldn’t be adapted; sometimes those adaptations can provide an important and helpful emotional education for audiences. But when we chose to make murder into a playful spectacle, we have to do so much extreme care and make sure we’re punching up and never down.
The thing about The Thing About Pam is that we didn’t need it. Zellweger, NBC, America, The World would have been fine without it. The story is already told, already locked into an intellectual property; and Zellweger’s already been awarded for playing a real person. Instead, this is a tv show based on a podcast adapting a true story. It’s so removed from the source material that it thinks it has room to play.
This isn’t a problem exclusive to The Thing About Pam. We’ve had similar cases like Joe vs. Carole, where a fad or trend has made us over-familiar with these crimes, clouding our perspective, so we’re less likely to take them seriously or address real structural problems that made them happen. And if we’re not going to address those problems, what’s the point? That’s the thing.
The Thing About Pam is now available on NBC.