The Thing About Pam Turns an Actual Murder Into a Campy Melodrama
One of Dateline NBC’s favorite true crime cases gets a wild mini-series adaptation.
The Thing About Pam. NBC. Tuesday, March 8, 10 p.m.
Don't tell me you haven't heard of Pam Hupp or Betsy Faria or Russ Faria. They're the murdering-est (and murdered-est) characters on Dateline NBC, the most murderous of all the true-crime slaughterfests on American television. They've been featured on five—five!—episodes, and fans still worshiped them with such utter adoration that they even got their own podcast, where they didn't have to share time with honeymoon killers, meth-head twins and reluctant Olivia Newton-John fiancés.
And now they have a prime-time drama where they're played by a cast that includes stars like Renée Zellweger and Josh Duhamel. Next, I suspect, will be handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, or even an invitation to compete on The Masked Singer.
Even if you've never watched Dateline NBC—but more especially if you have—NBC's miniseries The Thing About Pam is irresistibly entertaining. It turns one of Dateline's most eccentric cases, a peculiarly eccentric Midwestern murder, into campy melodrama with boo! hiss! villains who are as absurd—and as lovably engaging—as any summer mystery theater. Mocking not only its own characters, its own audience and its own genre, The Thing About Pam is as funny as a show about a corpse with 57 stab wounds can be.
Its clichés are proudly front and center: The victim was gored with a knife from her own kitchen, so naturally the next shot is off a knife sawing apart a steak so rare that it's practically mooing. One particularly nasty witness passes the time before her turn on the stand by reading a novel by Fox News lynchmistress Nancy Grace.
Even NBC 's immortal Dateline (now in its 30th season and counting) takes some elbow jabs. The Thing About Pam is narrated by Keith Morrison, who performs the same duty on Dateline and has deliberately overamped his already uber-cheesy delivery: "Who would ever think this goodbye would turn out to be forever?" Even the production credits on The Thing About Pam sound like a parody. It's the bastard progeny of a documentary division of NBC News and Blumhouse Television, known for quickie slice-and-dice fare like The Purge. It's sort of like Walter Cronkite making a film for William Castle.
In fact, the most difficult thing in negotiating your way through six hours of The Thing About Pam is remembering that, though fictionalized, it's a real story about real people in a real town trapped in a conspiracy of idiots. Glenn Fleshler (Billions) plays Russ Faria, an amiable goofball who returns to his suburban Missouri home one night from an evening of hot Dungeons & Dragons action (they attacked the Lord of Entropy!) to find his wife Betsy's mutilated corpse on the living-room floor. Based on not much more than Russ' admittedly weird reaction—confronted with a dead body cross-hatched with stab wounds and a knife sticking prominently from her neck, he exclaims that "I think she killed herself!"—he's arrested and charged with murder.
Not that the police make any more sense than Russ. Though the living room looks like a slaughterhouse, one of the cops notes, "I didn't see a drop of blood anywhere on him." Another officer comes to the obvious conclusion: "He must have washed it off." The chipper prosecutor Leah Askey (Judy Greer, Arrested Development) is even more untroubled. "This guy stabbed his wife 57 times and he didn't do it stark naked and spraying Lysol out of his ass," she instructs the cops. "So he must have missed a spot." With commendable flexibility, when the police still can't come up with anything, she decides that Russ really did commit the murder while naked. No Lysol, though. Let's not be silly.
What little circumstantial evidence that there is against Russ—that he sometimes argued with his wife and had once been separated from her—nearly all comes from Betsy's unctuous buttinsky of a friend named Pam Hupp, whose twin pathologies include inveterate lying and a transparently phony sweetness that obvious to everyone not wearing a badge. The tips she showers on the police and prosecutors are rarely true and often bizarrely irrelevant. ("Did you know that Betsy had an inverted nipple?") But is she just an irritating small-town gossip or something much worse?
The answer may seem obvious as you watch The Thing About Pam, which is less a whodunnit than a whydunnit or even a what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-these-people-who-dunnit. But I'm not going to spoil anything here; if you want to be able to smugly lecture your neighbors about which character is lying more and which character is lying (a little) less, there are plenty of true-crime blogs out there with the scoop.
What I will reveal is that the actress waddling about as the porcine Pam Hupp is the totally unrecognizable Renée Zellweger. Zellweger has two Oscars to her name, but in the not-unlikely event she wins an Emmy for her performance as Hupp, it will have to come with an asterisk for the two or three metric tons of fat suits and prosthetics she spent hours strapping on each day during shooting. Yet her version of Hupp is much more than a triumph of tubby technology. Zellweger's pastiche of malicious half-smiles and raging breakdowns is a reminder that sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover. And this one is definitely worth checking out.