tv review

Renée Zellweger Makes The Thing About Pam Inexplicable

Is The Thing About Pam meant to be a dark comedy about Pam Hupp’s escalating lies or a serious drama about how she destroyed a family? Zellweger’s performance makes it hard to say. Photo: Skip Bolen/NBC

“What is Renée Zellweger doing?”

That is an actual line from my notes on The Thing About Pam, the NBC miniseries premiering tonight about the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria that the network’s long-running newsmagazine Dateline has covered for years. The two-time Oscar winner stars as Pam Hupp, a Missouri woman currently serving a life sentence for one murder, awaiting trial in another, and suspected in one more. For the majority of The Thing About Pam, the miniseries focuses on the death of Faria, for which Hupp was charged with first-degree murder in July 2021 — after framing Faria’s husband, Russ, who served a few years in prison thanks in part to Hupp’s cozy relationships with the detectives and district attorney assigned to the case. The true story is wild, reflecting the laziness and corruption baked into the criminal-justice system all over this country, and to The Thing About Pam’s credit, its most refreshing quality is its refusal to downplay that ineptitude.

But The Thing About Pam isn’t a documentary because that approach has already been done for this story by NBC itself in a podcast of the same name and five Dateline episodes. Instead, this fictionalized miniseries is partially a meta-experiment in the newsmagazine format’s reliance on dramatic reenactments, partially NBC patting itself on the back for Dateline helping to release an innocent man, and partially Zellweger doing the most, and The Thing About Pam cannot sustain all three. Of that trio, Zellweger is the most incongruous component in a performance that prioritizes caricature, and she calls into question what exactly The Thing About Pam is trying to accomplish with this extension of its existing IP. Entertainment? Journalism? Whatever it is, Zellweger is a distraction.

Her face nearly immobile under caked-on makeup and her physicality stilted by body prosthetics, Zellweger is simultaneously broadly cartoonish and blandly nonspecific. She squints so much that her eyes lose whatever interiority they might have reflected; there is no real difference between her smile or her frown. She slurps on gigantic canteens of fountain soda, the scraping of the straw along the cup’s bottom both a pervasive irritant and a character-development shortcut. Zellweger plays Hupp like a passive-aggressive Karen who strong-arms people to her will via a mixture of guilt trips and performative self-pity, but there’s a disconnect from the very beginning between Zellweger’s unconvincing performance and the series’ insistence that Hupp charmed and manipulated her small-town neighbors.

Narration from broadcast journalist Keith Morrison, using the same highly flowery style and direct address he does on Dateline, sets up the story and then provides running commentary on it. On December 27, 2011, Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon) is found in her home with dozens of stab wounds and a knife in her neck. Husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler) calls 911 in a sobbing panic, believing that she killed herself, but police who arrive on the scene think he’s acting “maybe too hysterical,” says Morrison, and dismiss it as “textbook spousal homicide.” Although Russ has no blood on his clothes, no signs of being in a struggle, and an alibi corroborated by four people, the cops refuse to consider another suspect. Betsy’s friend Pam Hupp was the last person to see her alive, and she points directly at Russ — around whom she spins accusations of abuse that the police accept without a second thought.

“Open and shut, a story like that. Easy to judge the book by its cover … you’d be wrong. Dead wrong,” Morrison drawls, and viewers’ reactions to his smirking narration will probably vary depending on their familiarity with this Dateline tactic. He guides The Thing About Pam along as Pam grows close to Betsy’s family, befriends the prosecutor trying Russ (Judy Greer), and then tries to brush off the ensuing media attention; Morrison’s amused “No Dateline? Hmm. We’ll see,” in response to her refusal to be interviewed is a satisfying, if self-congratulating, moment. As a link between the miniseries’ nonfiction source material and its fictional retelling, Morrison already provides a kind of figurative “Isn’t this unbelievable?” commentary. But then Zellweger appears onscreen and is literally unbelievable in her performance, and whatever immersion Morrison’s narration provides goes out the window.

Is this meant to be a dark comedy about Hupp’s escalating lies and how easily people fell for them or a serious drama about how she destroyed a family because of her own pettiness and greed? Are we supposed to laugh at Zellweger’s portrayal of Hupp or be frightened of her? Brightly colored, chipper fantasy sequences in which we see how the narcissistic Hupp views herself (dressed in all white like an angel and adored by her family and friends or performing every role in a courtroom better than the actual judge, jurors, or bailiff) tip The Thing About Pam toward comedy. So too do the titles of the first four episodes provided to critics in advance, each of which defines Hupp by an identity she lied to maintain: “She’s a Good Friend,” “She’s a Helper,” “She’s a Star Witness,” and “She’s a Loving Daughter.”

The gravity of this story is better underlined by the series’ more nuanced performances, in particular Josh Duhamel as Russ’s defense attorney, Joel Schwartz; Ben Chase as his co-counsel, Nate Swanson; and Gideon Adlon as Mariah Day, Betsy’s daughter and Russ’s stepdaughter. Adlon conveys her character’s mixture of grief and shock through minute variations in the set of her mouth and the angling of her body away from the relatives taken in by Pam, and her subdued performance only highlights the garish campiness of Zellweger’s. Duhamel’s Bob Ross wig is quite silly, but both he and Chase do well with the expository dialogue handed to them as Russ’s defense team. When it comes time for The Thing About Pam to actually explain details about the crime, their no-nonsense scenes are effective — and certainly less hokey than a quick cut from a discussion of Betsy’s body and its dozens of stab wounds to Pam sawing into a bloody steak, or a flashback to Pam losing her virginity set to Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time.”

This attempt at hybridity evokes a series like Kevin Can F**k Himself, which also toyed with how an episodic TV format can alter our perceptions of gender roles and crime through its storytelling techniques. But The Thing About Pam isn’t really mocking Dateline, because this miniseries is both born from and praising of it, so there is no purposeful comparison being made between how The Thing About Pam stages re-creations or incorporates prison interviews versus how Dateline does them. Instead, the jumping back and forth between facetiously cheery re-creations of Hupp’s constantly changing story and more melodramatic scenes of Russ sobbing during his questioning by police is contradictory rather than illuminating. “For the first time, Pam wasn’t in control of her own story,” Morrison intones, but The Thing About Pam is so disparate in its methods and so mistaken in its centering of Zellweger that it loses its own sense of control, too.

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Renée Zellweger Makes The Thing About Pam Inexplicable