yesomething is off from the start in The Thing About Pam (Paramount+), a true-crime comedy drama based on a murder that took place in Troy, Missouri in 2011. Alarm bells ring within the opening seconds of the first episode, because The Thing About Pam is cursed with an ironic, singsong narrator. Apparently minor creative choices can, on occasion, communicate everything that is wrong with a show.
“A small, quiet town,” purrs an elder male voice as the scene is set. “An unobtrusive little place. The sort of place that didn’t make a fuss.” The arched-eyebrow tone – somewhere between the omniscient commentator in Desperate Housewives, the audience-baiting storyteller in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Morgan Freeman when he is overdoing the comforting wisdom shtick – announces that we will be taking a sideways look at the night Betsy Faria was stabbed 55 times and left on her living room floor with a kitchen knife in her neck. Every show in the recent rash of scripted dramas based on real crimes runs the risk of exploiting a horrifically traumatic event; The Thing About Pam smugly places itself above such concerns.
Soon we have met our antihero Pam Hupp, a real-estate agent with a Martha Stewart bob and trouser suit, whose manic TV ads for her business confirm that she is a nightmarishly toxic Wasp, a cauldron of passive aggression and beady-eyed acquisitiveness. Behind some squishy prosthetics – Pam has the complexion of a woman on an all-pastry diet – we can make out the features of Renée Zellweger. If Zellweger can deliver a Hollywood-powerhouse encapsulation of this monster that makes Pam interesting, The Thing About Pam might have a chance.
Hupp was finally charged with murder last year after Faria’s husband, Russ Faria, had his 2013 conviction for her murder overturned. She has pleaded not guilty. The last person to see Betsy alive, Hupp was incredibly forthcoming to police with incriminating gossip about Russ and a contrived alibi for herself. The cops, for their part, immediately assumed Russ’s guilt from him and never wavered from that, despite a marked lack of evidence against him. Indications that Hupp might in fact be the killer, turned up by Russ’s lawyer, were ruled inadmissible in court.
The Thing About Pam’s six episodes allege that Hupp manufactured that injustice but that she was eventually exposed. First, though, we establish how she poked her fingers into every pie in Troy, Missouri, by watching her stroll into a convenience store to pick up a big plastic cup of DayGlo soda. She and the cashier know each other by name; a passing police officer is greeted by Pam with some folksy, mumsy flirting. “Oh, the mundane moments of every day!” chimes that voiceover, condescension thickly pouring down like the cherry syrup Pam pumps into her pop de ella. “The drinks we buy! The shops we frequent!”
Thus the series sets out its stall. It’s wry about bovine consumerism. It peers askance at the pathologies raging behind white suburbia’s cute picket fences. You better believe that the American Dream will have a snook thoroughly cocked at it. It’s quite the smarty-pants iconoclast. It is even trying to play around with the genre it’s a part of: that narration is by Keith Morrison, a journalist on the documentary strand Dateline NBC, which ran a series on the Hupp case; Dateline’s reporting becomes a part of the narrative here in later episodes, as it’s revealed that as well as billing the Farias out of life insurance money, Pam’s motive for her might also have been to become the center of attention.
In the main, though, it’s a show about stupid little people in a tacky, nondescript town. It may well be that everyone involved in the Faria case was genuinely as naive as they seem, but it creates unrewarding drama and unsophisticated comedy: the scenes concerning local law enforcement return into a clunky workplace sitcom where recently appointed district attorney Leah Askey (Judy Greer ), a dreadful person who is floundering professionally, is frustrated by the even dippier cops.
And, maybe, Hupp really did steamroller over everyone she met, effortlessly manipulating them with crass wheedling and imposing selfishness, but Zellweger struggles to turn her into anything more than a grotesque cartoon, a generic dismissal of overweight, middle-aged, poorly dressed, lower-middle-class women as killer Karens.
All the while, that narration is cooing away, keeping us safely detached, aloof and amused, as though this were just a daft story. The real Betsy Faria surely served better.