3 out of 5
Based on: “The Thing About Pam” podcast and Pam Hupp Dateline TV episodes
I guess the positive side of my general ignorance of a lot of current events is that when the made-for-TV / movie that’s ripped from the headlines gets made, I don’t have any preconceptions of the story. Such was the case for The Thing About Pam, which follows a podcast / Dateline series on Pam Hupp, a real estate agent who may’ve committed two murders leading up to a third for which she convicted, stringing together – with the facts from the show seeming pretty accurate to what I’ve read after the fact – a series of unbelievably ballsy lies, propped up by a lot of cosmic (for her) good fortune.
This is, very much, one of those tales that begs a “truth is stranger than fiction” tag, but that also depends on your point of view: the clips of Pam that we’re shown at the show’s conclusion suggest she actually has some of the attributes with which actress Rene Zellweger portrays her, blown out to cartoon character proportion. She’s the ultimate passive aggressive nag, goading / bullying all around in her to support her in some fashion, and then flipping the tables to set herself up as a saint whenever possible; everything about Zellweger’s portrayl of this is purporsefully overblown, from her waddling-run to her cinema-villain glares whenever contemplating a new lie to spin. The show’s creators allow / encourage this portrayal to be centerstage in a very forceful Fargo-esque quirky tonal appropriation, location-swapped to the midwest of Missouri for a slightly folksy twang, and that bluster and stylization is where the show has its troubles.
On the one hand, Zellweger is fantastic. There was some to-do about her donning a fat suit for the role, and I don’t know if I have an opinion on that, but I immediately forgot she was under prosthetics. I don’t know if I ever considered Pam as a “real” person – again, she’s a cartoon – but I was completely swept up in Pam as a character on the show. And, after a rough start in which the quirky, self-aware cross-cutting and juxtaposition of sober podcast-esque narration from actual Dateline guy Keith Morrisson against the events’ continually ridiculous escalations is jammed down our throats, the show finds a rather addictive rhythm. But it’s basically unclear – and perhaps confused – where the cartoon ends, and reality begins.
That’s the perception-altering point of view, and one that can be easy to lose when everything is cast with bouncy music and Zellweger’s smirks, that this is a story about several people who actually died, and some quite brutally. While Fargo’s “true story” tag has been demystified, the Coen brothers’ skill with that movie (and in many of their works) is to find the comedy in humanity’s tragedies, without losing sight of that humanity. The Thing About Pam doesn’t have that nuance. It’s not especially clever, it just happened into a weird story, and brought in an actress who was ready to go full bore to bring its most ridiculous aspects to life. After a fashion – namely after it’s introduced all of its main players, including wife of the initial victim, Russ (Glenn Fleshler), Russ’ lawyer, Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel), and the prosecutor who was essentially defending Pam, Leah Askey (Judy Greer) – the show mostly settles on overplaying everything, and leaves that to Rene, and lets the rest settle. This means that initial victim, Pam’s “friend” Betsy (Katy Mixon), is unfortunately played off as part of the joke; the subsequent victims get a more careful hand, especially once the series takes a small detour to give us some context on Pam’s upbringing.
Duhamel pushes past a funky wig to deliver a great, straight-forward performance; Greer is able to bring that at some points, but it feels like she was cast specifically to act like Judy Greer, so the role doesn’t offer her as much room. Fleshler does a great job at portraying Russ’ naivety, which makes how he gets caught up in matters more believable. Sean Bridgers, playing Pam’s husband, is rather over-shadowed, unfortunately, indicative of the show’s rather half-committed approach to taking the topic seriously – he’s here because he existed, but not because he’s relevant to the narrative as its applied.
It’s thus tempting to say that the whole thing is affected by Zellweger’s scene-chewing Pam, and that’s true, but I’d say in a positive fashion: I think the comedic tone here was the goal, and a less capable actress would’ve made the discrepancy between that tone and the reality the much wider. By leaning into it – by committing to it so fully – Zellweger picks the show up, and, for better or worse, makes us forget this was a real Thing that happened; she’s the reason to watch.