‘The Thing About Pam’: Renée Zellweger Channels a Killer for Highly Stylized Suburban Crime Spoof

Desperate housewives can find solace in “The Thing About Pam,” NBC’s fictionalized account of the real-life murderer, Pamela Hupp. Played by Renée Zellweger as a suburban soufflé of social tics and condescension, she is the felon everyone loves to loathe, except for the people who have reason to hate her. Cheerful, bubbly and helpful to a fault, Pam is an unassailable “pillar of the community.” She says it herself when she introduces the audience to her husband, Mark (Sean Bridgers), son Travis (Drew Scheid), and daughter Sarah (Sarah Stipe), in a self-shot video clip. The Hupp case itself, which made “Dateline” five times, is a tangle of malevolence, favoritism, and obstructions of and by justice. Its network conversion is a travesty.

The limited series opens with one of the cute but smug omniscient narrations found so often on network series unsure of their overall tone. It is notable here because it is done by “Dateline NBC” announcer Keith Morrison, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, and faux gravitas on tap. On Dec. 27, 2011, as the title cards tell us, Russ Faria (Glen Fleshler) participated in a roleplaying game with friends, smoked some pot, and bought Arby’s on the way home, where he finds his late-stage cancer-stricken wife Betsy (Katy Mixon) dead on the floor. She has a steak knife sticking out of her neck. Russ calls 911, inconsolable and hysterical, claiming his wife committed suicide. He didn’t notice Betsy had been stabbed 55 times.

“The Thing About Pam” is set in “an unobtrusive place, the sort of place that doesn’t make a fuss. A town called Troy.” The cops arrive on the scene and immediately determine Russ is far too grieving a husband to be innocent. The newly elected county prosecutor, Leah Askey (Judy Greer), is an ambitious, impatient legal eagle who wears cronyism as an accessory and only has eyes for quick wins. When the lead detective (Mac Brandt) can’t coerce Russ to confess, the entire judicial system cuts off any line of legal defense. This is done so overtly, it is irritating to watch. 

It is almost as annoying as how much everyone in town circles their wagons around Pam, the last person to see Betsy alive, and the newly-signed beneficiary to her $150,000 estate. Of course, insurance payouts and last-minute wills and testaments are not on the docket for Russ’ defense attorney Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel). He gets stonewalled so effectively, in a bum rush between prosecution and the judge, he is intoning a “mistrial” mantra before his opening statements. This commits him to a one-note performance, as Duhamel’s face gets dozens of chances to play “I can’t this is happening in a court of law” in different ties.

The flashback sequences to Pam’s teen years are almost designed to bring sympathy to the character, but every visit with her mother Shirley (Celia Watson) cost her all goodwill. Pam is delusional, narcissistic and damaged, but too melodramatically deranged to care about. She loves playing the martyr and will crucify anyone who calls her on it. Zellweger is buried under facial prosthetics and a padded suit. She pulls the character through the physical transformation, but it comes across fake. Zellweger’s reinvention feels too intentionally and self-consciously odd. She doesn’t even look like the real Pam Hupp.

As Jack Donaghy pointed out on “30 Rock,” NBC kneels at the altar of vertical integration, and when the “Dateline” producer shows up as a character, the series becomes a commercial for itself. The media is put on trial, but the jury is rigged. Tabloid-TV comes on with a presumption of guilt, and infects the entire proceedings with reasonable doubt. Everything is done with a wink. 

“The Thing About Pam” damns Pam from the start. The title character goes from stabbing cancer victims to flipping houses with the same suspicious look in her eye, never for a moment letting the audience forget she is the villain. Pam’s lies are never unbelievable, which makes the entire prosecution eager conspirators, easy to loathe, and eccentrically awful. The district attorney skipped ethics entirely in law school, and weaponizes this to win first big case. The defense attorney can barely believe he’s defending an innocent client. 

“The Thing About Pam” is an over-the-top true crime melodrama which doesn’t quite hit the lows of satire. It could stand up in court as a dark comedy, but the evidence is circumstantial. There are set-ups and punchlines, but the series errs on the side of clever, and misses. The story moves effectively and the characters subvert the stereotypes, but the quirks overwhelm the suspects, and they’re trying too hard to appeal.

The Thing About Pam” premieres March 8 with new episodes airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.