Two years ago, Renée Zellweger was onstage receiving an Academy Award for her role as Judy Garland in Judy. It was her grand reentry into the Hollywood elite, after spending over a decade either not making movies or making movies that didn’t exactly capture the zeitgeist (apologies to fans of Bridget Jones’s Baby). With her second Oscar under her belt, surely Zellweger could have her pick of roles, or at least her pick of what Reese Witherspoon didn’t want.
Unfortunately, she chose to do The Thing About Pam, an NBC mini-series based on a podcast based on the reallife crimes of Pam Hupp. Hupp is currently awaiting trial for killing her friend Betsy and has been convicted of killing a stranger in an attempt to make it look like Betsy’s wrongfully accused husband wanted her dead. Hupp was also the last person to see her mother before she fell off her apartment balcony to her death, but the manner of death has been ruled “undetermined.” Prestige it is not, but it’s unclear whether or not that’s what it’s going for.
When we meet Pam, her hair isn’t done and it’s gone a little gray. “You know when people want you to admit to something you didn’t do? I can’t do that. I’m not that person. I don’t know who I am,” she says with a laugh and a thick Missouri accent. In the next scene, Pam does seem to know who she is, or who she wants to be. Her hair is now perfectly blonde and she wears an all-white outfit as she introduces herself directly to the camera in a sing-songy voice. She’s a businesswoman, she’s successful, she’s a pillar of the community. This is, I think, supposed to be funny, because we all know that she is a murderer. Instead it falls flat, only drawing attention to the show’s tonal unevenness.
The Thing About Pam wants to be a lot of things: a character study of a woman who would kill her friend for insurance money, an indictment of the criminal justice system, a nail-biting true crime saga, and a show about how Midwestern people talk funny. It rarely succeeds at being all of those things, and the only consistent thing throughout the show it’s that you never knew what kind of wig you’ll be seeing next.
Zellweger, who also serves as a producer, became interested in the project while listening to the Dateline podcast of the same name. “I think my jaw was on the steering wheel," Zellweger told Entertainment Weekly. "It felt like a good time to start telling stories that I found interesting and to develop material — not just for myself, but things that I'd like to see made.”
Why Zellweger decided to take this role for herself is a question that lingers over the show. Does she look like Pam? No. She is in full-body prosthetics to play her, and you can tell that she is not used to moving around with the extra weight. Does the show offer her a chance to let her signature dry wit come through? Not really. Is there any reason to sympathize with Pam? Not at all — from the jump you know that she is guilty of murder, and financial woes and a mean mother aren’t enough to make up for it.
So what is Zellweger doing here? An actress of her caliber should be doing what Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Kate Winslet figured out a long time ago. Namely, she should be on HBO doing a well-written drama that can actually showcase her talents. At the very least she should be on Apple TV+.
She has tried to break into the prestige TV boom before, with the dead-on-arrival Netflix show What/If. One of the few positive things written about it came from Linda Holmes at NPR, who wrote, “It's not a good show, but it's entertaining in a very specific way. Zellweger has sunk her teeth so deeply into this notion of Welcome To Rich Prowling Cougartown that she's practically licking up bowls of milk.”
The same could be said about The Thing About Pam; Zellweger is, if anything, trying her best. But the show gets lost somewhere between using actual Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison to deliver wry narration and trying to hammer home a message about our broken justice system. Despite trying seemingly every kind of approach to storytelling, often within the same episode, it cannot meet Zellweger where she’s at. Although I’m not certain that wherever Zellweger is would be a good place for the show to land.
What made shows like Big Little Lies — specifically its first season — appointment TV was, more than the mystery of any particular murder, the character-driven writing that provided juicy roles for each woman to shine in. In Pam, Zellweger has not found the juice. There is just a bad woman who has done a bad thing, and there is not much convincing us to think otherwise. It is interesting to see how a modicum of attention can turn a woman suspected of murder into a fame-seeking monster, but if that’s what you’re looking for, you can just turn on Chicago.