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‘The Thing About Pam’ dresses up Renée Zellweger for an odd ‘Dateline’ drama

<i>Skip Bolen/NBC</i><br/>Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp in 'The Thing About Pam.'
Skip Bolen/NBC
Skip Bolen/NBC
Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp in 'The Thing About Pam.'

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Drama meets “Dateline” in “The Thing About Pam,” an NBC series that seeks to turn one of the newsmagazine’s salacious stories into a limited series, complete with ghoulish narration by reporter Keith Morrison. Featuring Renée Zellweger tromping around under the weight of prosthetic makeup, it’s a true-crime experiment that clearly wants to be the next “Fargo” and doesn’t get there.

“Dead wife. Guilty husband feigning grief,” Morrison intones in his trademark style, characterizing the assumptions that met the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria, and the suspicions cast on her husband Russ (“True Detective’s” Glenn Fleshler).

But the key player in the drama turns out to be Pam Hupp (Zellweger), a friend of the dead woman who happened to be the last person to see her alive. Pam seems a little too eager to point fingers at Russ, telling detectives working the case that he was “not nice verbally to her. You know the type.”

“Dateline” viewers certainly know the type, which explains in part why the prosecutor (Judy Greer) immediately focuses on the victim’s husband. As for Russ’s attorney, Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel, working against an unflattering hairdo), his efforts to prompt the police to take a second look at Pam — who strangely found her way into Betsy’s will — are met with frustrating resistance.

There’s a decidedly quirky quality (hence the “Fargo” comparison) in the manner all this is presented, with Zellweger, making what’s billed as her broadcast-TV debut after her Oscar-winning role in “Judy,” huffing around and drinking soda out of what look like gallon-sized drums.

Yet “The Thing About Pam” falls into that weird realm of fact-based limited series that essentially tease out an episode of a newsmagazine like “Dateline” into a multi-part drama — an exercise in excess that feels more conspicuous, perhaps, because of the direct line here from one format to the other.

In success, the project could theoretically open the door for other true-crime dramas that expand on such stories, which has obviously proven to be a fertile genre for streaming services and premium networks in both scripted and unscripted formats. Such a pipeline would be a boon to NBC News, at the risk of further blurring the lines, to the extent they still exist, between news and entertainment.

“The Thing About Pam” has already exhibited commercial potential, following its coverage on “Dateline” with Morrison’s eponymous podcast, downloaded more than 20 million times, according to NBC.

First things first, though, in terms of reaping the windfall from that treasure trove of “Dateline” mysteries. And the main thing about “Pam” in this guise, frankly, is that it’s not all that good.

“The Thing About Pam” premieres March 8 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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