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Miniseries used to be a foundational piece of the broadcast television landscape. But since cable and streaming appropriated the form, rebranded it “limited series” and turned it into an opportunity for ostensible movie stars to do six or eight hours of TV without a longer-term commitment, broadcast hasn’t been able to keep up.
And when broadcast networks have tried to do a limited series in this vein — think ABC’s Women of the Movement or CBS’ Red Line or Fox’s Shots Fired — even the good ones haven’t gotten the critical or awards traction necessary to inspire a trend.
The Thing About Pam
Airdate: 10 p.m. Tuesday, March 8 (NBC)
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Josh Duhamel, Judy Greer, Katy Mixon, Glenn Fleshler, Gideon Adlon, Sean Bridgers, Suanne Spoke and Mac Brandt
Showrunner: Jenny Klein
Don’t expect NBC’s The Thing About Pam to do the trick, either. The presence of Renée Zellweger should attract some initial curiosity, and the multiple Oscar winner’s fatsuit-enhanced performance is, indeed, a primary reason to tune in. Nothing else in the tonally inconsistent, narratively sluggish series has the compelling hook of whatever limited series that Hulu, HBO, Netflix and the rest seem to turn around on a weekly basis.
Adapted by Jenny Klein from various Dateline reports — Dateline’s Keith Morrison narrates with arch whimsy — The Thing About Pam begins in late 2011 and focuses on the murder of Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon). The crime was implausibly reported by Betsy’s husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler) as a suicide, which helped lead to Russ being convicted of the crime, but it was later linked to Betsy’s best friend, Pam Hupp (Zellweger).
The series features Judy Greer as the prosecutor who targeted Russ, Josh Duhamel as Russ’ credulous defense attorney, Sean Bridgers as Pam’s husband, Mark, and Celia Weston as Pam’s mother.
The best thing in The Thing About Pam‘s favor is that it comes so soon after NBC’s corporate sibling Peacock’s Joe vs. Carole. In the battle of true-crime shows with darkly comic undercurrents and gawking condescension toward flyover states, The Thing About Pam is generally superior, albeit lacking in any single element as compelling as John Cameron Mitchell’s live-wire turn as Joe Exotic.
It still treats Middle America — Missouri in this case — with sneering voyeurism, a realm populated by thinly conceived characters defined exclusively by the corners they’re willing to cut to achieve success and presumably escape. There’s almost nothing here that wasn’t done with more nuance and a smarter attention to regional detail in Hulu’s Emmy-winning The Act, one of at least a dozen recent true-crime-adjacent shows — the NBCUni family also produced two seasons of Dirty John, a more “affluent” variation — that had more edge and significantly more perspective on why these sorts of stories intrigue audiences.
I’m really not sure you’d watch The Thing About Pam and come away from the early episodes — critics have been sent four of six — with any clue why the story allegedly captivated Dateline audiences. If Pam is smart, she’s smart in a way the series can’t figure out how to articulate or illustrate. There’s no suspense or sense of building drama, just inevitability.
In Zellweger’s hands, Pam at least has a scheming interiority, wheels that are spinning in ways that the show unveils at a glacial pace. Through the four episodes, we’re supposed to infer her ulterior motives and machinations, without seeing much of anything in action. There isn’t any evidence that Zellweger, or the show, is approaching Pam with any real empathy. I guess we’re supposed to just accept that being played by an Oscar winner is empathy enough, even if that Oscar winner is wallowing in latex, waddling in mom jeans and latched to a convenience store cup of soda as if it’s a teat secreting the milk of human unkindness.
I’ll leave it for other people to be offended, justifiably, by this latest example of fatsuit acting, and instead focus my frustration on the fact that if you’re casting an attorney named “Joel Schwartz,” going with Duhamel and just giving him a borderline Jewfro is every bit as bizarre. Of course, Joel is so thinly written that Duhamel’s thin performance can’t be seen as detracting or taking anything away.
In general, The Thing About Pam is awash in supporting characters it treats as bumbling, but negligibly so. So you want every character in a drama like this to feel fully inhabited? Yes. But if you’re not going to make them people, at least make them colorful and you might get something that lives up to the wannabe Fargo quality to Scott Winant’s early direction, the voiceover and the score. Of the supporting performances, Greer registers for some appealing scenery-chewing and the character’s severe bob, while Weston and Gideon Adlon, as Betsy’s daughter, generate a modicum of sympathy.
Would The Thing About Pam be better with a little cable edge or a few extra minutes of running time per episode? Maybe? Would it be better with the confidence to ask real questions about Dateline‘s relationship to sensationalistic stories like this, perhaps even critiquing the machinery of Dateline? Absolutely. There’s a lot of blurriness of intention around the storytelling in The Thing About Pam and an ultimately complacent belief that Renée Zellweger slurping on soda is enough to count as Emmy bait.
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