The Thing About Pam, which hits Paramount+ from 21 July, is a real-life slice of small-town Americana, drenched in murder most horrid.
Based on an NBC podcast of the same name, this murder mystery hinges on Renee Zellweger and her portrayal of Pam Hupp – a close friend, personal confidant and caregiver to the murder victim Betsy Faria (Katy Mixon), who not only proves proficient in perpetually pulling strings for her own benefit, but in the hands of Zellweger, makes this show compulsive viewing.
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Found dead in her kitchen one Christmas by husband Russ (Glenn Fleshler), Betsy had a steak knife in her neck and more than 50 stab wounds elsewhere on her body. Despite a cast iron alibi and eye witnesses to corroborate his story, Russ Faria was soon arrested and brought in for questioning.
Executive produced by Jason Blum, with Jenny Klein (The Witcher) on board as showrunner, The Thing About Pam is elevated by perfectly balanced character moments and a conniving central turn. One which allows Zellweger to disappear inside the mind of a woman who makes lying look easy.
Making sure to mix meta moments with more grounded dramatic digressions, The Thing About Pam unpacks its plot with care. It keeps audiences complicit by using real-life Dateline NBC narrator Keith Morrison for exposition, something which not only gives this show a Lemony Snicket edge of surrealism, but tonally recalls The Burbs - an underrated Joe Dante comedy featuring Tom Hanks.
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With beady eyes and a Big Gulp slushie straw always being sucked on, this seemingly harmless housewife calculates every consonant with consideration. Painting the reality of Betsy’s murder to satisfy her own narrative at every turn, while throwing others under the bus. It's a facet of her persona which Zellweger consistently nails, allowing her to keep audiences on side by walking a thin line between self-interest and self-delusion.
Pam is convinced she knows best and as the lies stack up under questioning, audiences would be wise to stick around and watch it unravel. Not only when she is being coached by prosecuting DA Leah Askey (Judy Greer), but on the stand up against lawyer for the defence Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel), where initially she might appear to hold all the cards. A realisation early on, which morphs this small-town melodrama into something else entirely.
At the heart of this true crime piece is a story about ambition, which offers even calculating killers like Pam Hupp some semblance of humanity, giving this series more backbone in the process and moving it away from the exploitation origins which those opening credits might imply. That it also continues to embrace meta moments, where fact and fiction merge also make this much more than a glorified courtroom melodrama.
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Flashbacks also feature Pam as a young woman (Emily Topper), if only to explain where this small-town Demogorgon first found her calling, but they also go some way to explaining how ambitions can get undermined. In this case, that would make Pam the product of an overbearing mother (Celia Weston) who offers her no support, leaving her to grow embittered, calculating and resentful of happiness in others.
However, these instances only serve to add more depth to a character who is ultimately fascinating, irrespective of what her motives might have been to begin with. For audiences, The Thing About Pam is as much about her journey, as it is about that final destination. Between Zellweger, Greer and Duhamel there is also an intriguing clash of ideologies in character, which in the case of Pam and Leah is far from selfless.
Once the groundwork of circumstance, motive and opportunity is laid out, The Thing About Pam focuses on character. Unpacking intention and dissecting agendas through a series of exchanges spread across many years. Much of the pleasure to be had from this show occurs in those latter stages, as every lie Pam has told comes back to haunt her. In that moment tables are turned; home truths are shared and the control she craves starts slipping away.
Whether audiences will last the distance with this show, depends very much upon their love of true crime dramas. There is no doubt that this slice of original entertainment has a solid ensemble, from which Duhamel and Greer stand out, but Zellweger is the clincher. There is no doubt her portrayal of Pam Hupp, which quietly dominates throughout will get people talking. Cunning, coercive, and cold-bloodedly coddling - she makes Rosemary West look well adjusted.
Think of it like Mindhunter with more meta moments and a better bedside manner.
The Thing About Pam is streaming now on Paramount+.
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