Or is Dateline For People Who Won’t Watch Dateline?
What does it say about me as a viewer that I’ve gone my entire life and never watched a single episode of Dateline? I know more about the kind of ‘true-crime stories’ they’ve been telling for decades more from the SNL and other late-night parodies than any actual episode. I know about the smarmy narration and the ridiculous stories they seem to tell from second and third hand sources, but generally my path would never cross with theirs. Maybe that makes me the wrong target audience for The Thing about Pam.
The limited series is basically the first fictional adaptation of a Dateline story that NBC has ever done. It plays to all intents and purposes like a Dateline episode, complete with Keith Morrison doing his bizarre narration that I’m told millions must love. It features its story not so much on the actual crime than on the neighbor who is adjacent to it, the title character. And if you’re going to have someone who can truly play the perfect tone of not taking yourself seriously, it helps immensely to have Renee Zellweger as your lead.
Zellweger has always been one of Hollywood’s great actresses, in both comedy and drama, but I don’t remember a role since her time as Bridget Jones that she genuinely seemed to be more committed to making herself look ridiculous. That she is doing so in what is ostensibly a serious drama makes her work all the more astounding. Playing Pam Hupp, a Missouri hausfrau who seems like another ordinary wife and mother (the series actually opens with her telling the audience how ordinary she is) the audience instantly see just how much of a busybody and schemer she truly is, pushing her way into the life of a friend dying of cancer (a real American Housewife Katy Moxon) and making herself utterly invaluable to her as she goes through chemo and drives her home as her husband is busy at ‘game night’. Of course, the next day said friend is found stabbed to death almost sixty times and the poor husband (Glenn Fleshler) ends up being detained by the police. The poor sap is utterly unprepared for the cops, and probably could have gotten himself locked up on his own, without the assistance of Pam who does everything but hand photos to the cops showing him standing over the murder. Pam seems to be doing everything in her power to insert herself into the investigation and you’d think the cops and the DA (Judy Greer, relishing every moment onscreen) would be a little more suspicious.
The thing is they’re not clueless. In fact, the entire circus around the arrest and trial of the husband is as much in the bag as a Southern trial of a white man for killing a black one until, let’s be kind and say, this year. Of course, this is the converse. There’s no blood evidence, the alibi he has is solid, there’s no confession. But the DA has no probably putting him on trial, and even less of a problem having a party with the cops, the jury pool and the judge. The captions practically scream “This is a miscarriage of justice waiting to happen”, but I’m guessing that basically Dateline’s subtitle.
Here’s the main problem I have with The Thing About Pam. I don’t how seriously to take it, and I’m not entirely certain the creators do either. It doesn’t play as a docudrama or a dramatization of an actual Dateline story; it plays like the Saturday Night Live version. Which would be fine if the underlying story — at least as I seem to read is — is about a real decision to convict and imprison a man with no evidence at all. This kind of tone wouldn’t have even been considered by the creators of When They See Us or Women of the Movement or really any series that ended up with somebody on Death Row. The decision that the writers seem to have made is that since all of these people white people in flyover country, it’s okay to treat all of them, except for the husband and his attorney (played by Josh Duhamel with relish) as though they were buffoons and that the murder and everything else that happened should just be considered a clown act. It doesn’t help that everybody in the cast plays it as if it were a pure comedy. And the thing is, as a comedy it doesn’t particularly have many laughs.
Don’t get me wrong, everybody in the cast seems to having a grand time, particularly Zellweger, who seems able to convey pure entertainment just by the way she sucks down the giant sodas she always seem to be having. But the thing about The Thing About Pam is that I really don’t know what anybody from top to bottom thought they were trying to tell when they decided to make this story. It might work as a serious drama, but none of the writers seemed to want to commit that. It doesn’t work as a comedy, because if you stop and think about it — which clearly none of the cops or attorneys did — it’s a travesty of justice. And I can’t see who the writers were telling this story for — TV Guide points out they’ve gone back to the well about the real Pam Hupp several times, so I don’t know what kind of viewership they were hoping to gather. People who wouldn’t watch Dateline because it’s too lowly for them but would watch a dramatization of a Dateline show because, in the era of Peak TV, that’s classier? In my case, that seems to be what has happened.
All I can say is, if you really want to watch Dateline without having to admit you watched Dateline, The Thing About Pam might be a good reason to. If you want to see Renee Zellweger having a grand time in her first TV role, I imagine there’s a call for that as well. Otherwise, if you want to see an Oscar winning actress play a character who’s on the verge of real criminal conspiracy, wait another month and watch Julia Roberts play Martha Mitchell on Gaslit. That was a bizarre story too, but the stakes were clearly higher and the lead character infinitely more interesting.
My score: 2.5 stars.