The Thing About Pam Review: An Oddly Wry Take On A Real Life Murder Case

The thing about sinister small-town meddler Pam Hupp is that she's not quite as interesting as NBC thinks she is. The network's new series, "The Thing About Pam," takes a dramatic approach to a story NBC has already told twice before–on multiple episodes of "Dateline" and later in a popular six-part podcast that shares a name with the new show. By the time Renée Zellweger's Pam enters the scene in "The Thing About Pam," lips pursed and eyes shifty, true crime fans will already be familiar with this much-discussed case.

Granted, the network has a good reason to remain curious about Pam Hupp's story: the life insurance agent who eventually becomes embroiled in multiple murder investigations has stranger-than-fiction ties to "Dateline." To reveal them would be to spoil the series' surprises for anyone who may have missed the Pam-mania the first two times around, but "The Thing About Pam" will surely dig into the drama across its six-episode run. In the meantime, the four episodes available for screening at the time of review provide an intriguing but tonally off-putting rehash of the story.

The Dateline treatment

For the uninitiated, "The Thing About Pam" tells the real-life story of the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria and the increasingly complicated and baffling aftermath. Viewers don't know much about Betsy (Katy Mixon), since the seemingly kind-hearted cancer patient only appears briefly before being found dead with dozens of stab wounds. After the brutal inciting incident, the story becomes filtered through the perspective of her husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler) and the much more persistent voice of her friend Pam. "The Thing About Pam" implicates its title character from the start, showing Pam taking strides to establish an alibi by having Betsy leave a voicemail for Pam's husband.

The series, ostensibly a drama, makes several odd and distasteful choices. "Dateline" narrator Keith Morrison provides the voiceover for the story, asking broad questions, mixing metaphors, and reading from a quippy script that's not as clever as it thinks it is. The choice of narrator has the potential to alienate viewers who aren't familiar with the story beats of "Dateline." When combined with the story's holiday setting, Morrison's dramatic readings begin to feel more like something out of a Christmas special than a true crime drama. The narration is inappropriately wry, casting the whole show in a darkly comic light that makes the series feel unserious from the very beginning.

Murder, but make it funny?

The show's take on Pam certainly doesn't help lend gravity to the real-life tragedy. Zellweger plays Pam with heavy facial prosthetics and a padded suit, which oddly don't even match up with the look of the real Pam Hupp. It's a shame the actress chose to wear a fat suit, because the series otherwise does a rare and stellar job casting actors with diverse body types. The series envisions Pam as an attention-seeker and manipulator who hides her intentions under the guise of a friendly, busybody-ish community member.

Yet, perhaps in a bid to refresh the story for the screen, the show goes to goofy lengths to visually signify her selfish delusions. In one scene, Pam cheerfully tells us about her perfect life in a sequence that looks like a brightly-lit real estate ad. In another, she dreams of a judge and jury composed entirely of Pams. A few of these moments do work to underline just how ridiculous Pam's attempts to insert herself into the case became, like when she tells clearly fake anecdotes about her and Betsy's friendship, which Zellweger and Mixon then act out in a hilariously hammy way.

Still, something about the fact that any moment from "The Thing About Pam" can be described as hilarious rubs me the wrong way. The true story that inspired the series has several over-the-top aspects, from Russ' potentially incriminating 911 phone call to the initial prosecutor's logic-free theory of the crime. Plus Pam's lies and schemes, which only become more nefarious and contradictory as the series wears on, are inherently unbelievable. But the series seems more concerned with showing the way those involved in the case made a fool of themselves by believing Pam than with actually treating the real murders at its center with an iota of seriousness.

Judy Greer saves the day, as usual

The show has its problems, but its cast isn't one of them. Zellweger, who also executive produces, plays Pam as a devious, gossipy woman who's confident in her ability to game the system. It's hard to judge an acting job that's obscured by face-stiffening prosthetics, but she clearly relishes digging into the devilish role. Judy Greer is a wicked series highlight as Leah Askey, a cutthroat district attorney who hides her amorality under a veil of family values. She goes head to head with Josh Duhamel, who appears as Russ' skeptical lawyer, and the tete-a-tete between the two is more interesting than anything Pam's up to. Betsy's two daughters, played with sensitivity by Olivia Luccardi and especially Gideon Adlon, provide the series its only true scenes of sympathy for its central victim.

"The Thing About Pam" seems to be trying to say something, but real-life investigations have already dug into the case in a much more substantial and serious way. The dramatized version, which comes eleven years after Betsy Faria's murder, mostly serves only to undercut an engrossing, twist-filled true story by injecting it with too much levity.

"The Thing About Pam" premieres March 8, 2022, on NBC.