The Thing about “The Thing About Pam” is it’s probably not quite the limited series you hoped it would be, and definitely not the limited series it could have been. The details about the crime – make that crimes – of convicted murderer (make that twice-convicted murderer) Pam Hupp have been well covered by local Missouri and national media, most famously in six episodes of “Dateline NBC” and a “Dateline” podcast called “The Thing About Pam.”
Both “Dateline” projects were wildly popular – the 2019 podcast has been downloaded more than 20 million times – and it’s no wonder the Betsy Faria murder case and the diabolical plotting of Pam Hupp continued to attract attention; not just murder, but the Faria case files also included affairs, shoddy police work, shoddy prosecutorial work, shoddy work by the judge and any number of people whom Hupp convinced to turn a blind eye to her shenanigans.
The details of the Faria case became so well known that Pam Hupp may be the most notorious true-crime TV murderess since Pam Smart, the New Hampshire teacher convicted of conspiring to get her teenage student lover to kill her husband in 1990 after she became bored with her marriage. The salacious details of the Smart case – the sex, of course, but also Smart’s obsessive desire to become famous – drew people through multiple network specials on the case, a TV movie starring future Oscar winner Helen Hunt as Smart, and even Gus Van Sant’s darkly funny 1995 mockumentary “To Die For” starring and Oscar-worthy performance by Nicole Kidman as a Smart-like character.
In a perfect world, Van Sant’s vicious satire should have inspired “The Thing About Pam.” The limited series does put some clever, over-the-top spins on the well-trod story; Hupp is often seen carrying a Big Gulp-sized convenience store cup of soda that serves as her fuel as she flits around town lying, stealing, arguing with her mother and daughter, and — spoiler if you’re new to her story — plotting and carrying out the murder of her proclaimed BFF Betsy. In one particularly memorable dream sequence, Pam enters the courtroom to find her name in marquee lights and a red carpet rolled out for her, as she is the prosecution’s star witness in its attempt to convict Betsy’s husband, Russ, as his wife’s killer.
The showrunners must walk a fine line when the case has been covered so thoroughly and there are real people who are still mourning Betsy, and raging on behalf of a man who spent real time in prison for a murder he did not commit. Based on the four episodes provided for review, the show covers the bases, and allows viewers fresh peeks at who Pam Hupp is and what motivated her to commit murder.
But the fact that the details of the case have been shared so many times in so many venues also gave the production a certain freedom to embrace some tongue-in-cheek approaches to the storytelling — even if they fail to find a consistency to that irreverent attitude.
The performances are top notch. Zellweger, in her biggest TV role so far, looks like she is thoroughly enjoying her time as this larger-than-life character, whose boldness knew no end until she was finally made to face the consequences of her crime streak. Josh Duhamel is also fun to watch as Russ Faria’s guitar-strumming hotshot attorney, Joel Schwartz, who struts into town in pursuit of justice for Faria while also putting Pam’s suspicious behavior in the spotlight. Special shoutout to Duhamel’s wig, which can only be described as looking like Mike Brady, circa “The Brady Bunch” Season 5.
The only disappointment may be that the always delightful Katy Mixon plays Betsy Faria — who doesn’t have a lot of screen time since the show is not called “The Thing About Betsy.”
“The Thing About Pam” premieres March 8 on NBC.