‘The Thing About Pam’: Renée Zellweger transforms in a darkly funny true-crime series

Actor makes a convincing killer in NBC’s fictionalization of the real-life Pamela Hupp murder case.

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Small-town busybody Pamela Hupp (Renée Zellweger) is the best friend of a murdered woman in “The Thing About Pam.” | NBC

NBC

We all know someone who has a little bit of Pam in them, and I don’t mean that as a slight to the real-life Pams of the world, as I’m saying this in a generic “Karen” kind of way. I’m talking about those people who on the surface always seem to be helping others and contributing to the greater good and maintaining a chipper personality and consider themselves to be pillars of the community — all of which may be true — and yet there’s something … irritating about those Pams. Something self-consumed and petty and gossipy and just plain unlikable.

That’s “The Thing About Pam,” in which Renée Zellweger delivers a big, juicy, wonderfully disruptive performance as a small-town busybody, real estate flipper, wife and mother — who is also a stone-cold killer. (That’s the difference between the “Pams” we know and this Pam. The former aren’t murderers. Probably.) The bizarre, true-life story of Pamela Hupp has been the subject of five “Dateline” episodes and a popular podcast, and now comes this fictionalized limited series, which takes a darkly comedic approach to the material and maintains an almost breezy approach to some seriously macabre events.

In a jarring technique that doesn’t really serve the storyline, “The Thing About Pam” features narration from the golden-voiced “Dateline” legend himself, Keith Morrison, who has some of the greatest pipes in the world but comes across as smug and a bit too precious as he goes all Garrison Keillor/Lake Wobegon, telling us our story transpires in “an unobtrusive place, the sort of place that doesn’t make a fuss. A town called Troy.” (From time to time, the omniscient voice returns with unnecessary foreshadowing commentary, e.g., “Who would ever think this goodbye would turn out to be forever?”)

‘The Thing About Pam’

Untitled

9 p.m. Tuesdays on WMAQ-Channel 5 through April 12

Troy, Missouri, Dec. 27, 2011. Russ Faria (Glen Fleshler) drinks beers and smokes a little pot at his buddy’s house on Game Night, stops at an Arby’s drive-through with a serious case of the munchies, returns home — and is horrified to find his wife Betsy (Katy Mixon) dead on the floor, a knife sticking out of her neck and dozens of stab wounds on her body. A sobbing and hysterical Russ tells the 911 operator his wife killed herself, but the cops arriving on the scene quickly deduce this had to be murder — and Russ is the obvious prime suspect.

Enter Judy Greer as the newly elected prosecutor Leah Askey, and when has any movie or TV series NOT been instantly improved the moment Judy Greer appears onscreen? Greer is a scene-stealing hoot as the ambitious and cheerfully overconfident Leah, who is 100% certain Russ is the killer and pressures the lead detective (Mac Brandt) to squeeze a confession out of Russ and gather the necessary evidence to put him away forever, even if some shortcuts have to be taken.

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Judy Greer co-stars as a prosecutor convinced the dead woman was killed by her husband. | NBC

NBC

How does Pam factor into all this? She was Betsy’s best friend, tending to her through Betsy’s bouts with cancer, and she drove Betsy home that fateful night, and oh by the way Betsy recently changed her will so that Pam would receive Betsy’s $150,000 estate, and it’s quite possible Pam is the actual killer, as Russ’ hotshot defense attorney Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel) keeps on pointing out to the prosecution. Nevertheless, Russ remains the only suspect as the lead investigator and the prosecutor conveniently ignore some of the glaring inconsistenciesin Pam’s statements. Oh what a tangled web!

“The Thing About Pam” provides flashback sequences from Pam’s teenage years, and we gain some measure of sympathy for Pam when we see how her mother Shirley (Celia Watson) drenched herself in booze and constantly berated Pam. (Spoiler alert: Shirley winds up dead as a result of a fall from her balcony, which might not have been an accident.) There are times when I almost had to take out an umbrella to shield myself from the steady downpour of condescension permeating the series — e.g., when Pam adds several pumps of cherry syrup into her Enormous Gulp cup of soda, because, you know, small towns — but on the whole, “The Thing About Pam” manages to be both amusing and appalling, eccentric and shocking.

When we first saw images and footage of Zellweger in prosthetics and padded suit, there was an outcry from some who lamented that the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t hire an actress whose natural size more closely mirrored Pam Hupp. It’s a legitimate point — but actors have been relying on the artistic deceit of makeup and costume to transform themselves since the beginning of drama, and beneath the prosthetics and padding, it’s Zellweger’s performance that shines through. She becomes Pam Hupp in part because of the physical transformation, but mostly because that’s what fine actors do — they make us believe they’re someone else entirely.

Someone like Pam.

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