The phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction” was made for a true-crime story like the one at the core of The Thing About Pam. If a screenwriter decided to craft this particular string of heinous crimes, it would likely get rejected for being too outlandish. Fortunately, the forces behind Dateline NBC thought there was a lot more to this particular case, ultimately transforming the story behind Betsy Faria’s death into an extremely successful 2019 podcast. Loudly touted as Oscar winner Renée Zellweger’s broadcast TV debut, The Thing About Pam does an impressive job of translating an addictive tale to the small screen.
It’s easy to see why Dateline was intrigued in the first place. In 2011, Russ Faria of Troy, Missouri placed a call to 911, saying his wife Betsy had killed herself. Unfortunately for Russ, Betsy had over 50 stab wounds, and his call to the authorities made him sound histrionic. A suicide ruling was extremely unlikely. In the tiny community of Troy (population: 12,000), law enforcement and up-for-reelection district attorney Leah Askey were quick to blame the most obvious suspect in domestic disputes: the husband.
But the series based on the crime are called The Thing About Pam, so there’s early indication that Russ might not be the killer. In the limited series, Russ’ attorney Joel Schwartz (Josh Duhamel) glides in like a white knight, but even this experienced, successful lawyer is stymied by the local roadblocks thrown his way. One of the key witnesses in the case: Betsy’s best friend Pam Hupp (Zellweger), who appears to be pulling several strings behind the scenes—but to what end?
Like the podcast, The Thing About Pam is narrated by Dateline correspond Keith Morrison, which adds a strange but compelling folksy flavor to an increasingly disturbing story. Morrison’s narrator obviously knows more than we do, and he aids the series as it slowly unfurls clues and details that inevitably lead the way back to the story’s titular character.
Zellweger and her many prosthetics are getting most of the series’ press—and yes, a show based on such an unsavory character would be a tough sell if not for the Oscar winner’s savvy performance. Pam is cruel to both her mother and offspring while positioning herself as a godsend to Betsy and her family members. These gratifying aspects of her personality are amplified by an ever-present giant fountain drink, which Zellweger slurps in an angry, compulsive manner. The actor also nails the specific nasality of Pam’s Missouri twang; it’s not quite the challenge of an Anna Delvey gold Elizabeth Holmesbut her portrayal is nearly indistinguishable from the voice of the real Hupp on the podcast. She plays Pam’s unsympathetic nature fearlessly, and the most chilling part of the story is its suggestion that such a monster could show up anywhere, even cloaked in Midwest Nice.
But none of that should overshadow the series’ true utility players: Duhamel and Judy Greer as the the lawyers on opposite sides of the Faria case. So often unfairly sidelined to the best-friend-in-the-rom-com role, Greer is uncharacteristically wily as Askey, refusing to admit that she may have fingered the wrong guy and crafting any number of implausible theories to make that accusation stick. Duhamel is also a revelation here, adopting the curly locks of the real-life Schwartz and refusing to give up on proving Russ’ innocence no matter how many cards are stacked against him. Greer’s Askey gleefully and repeatedly emphasizes to Schwartz how far away from the Troy inner circle he is, but Schwartz is undaunted, believing he has the truth on his side.
Honestly, in a TV age where none of us are strangers to legal dramas or true-crime docs (as the recent return of Law & Order would attest), it’s rare for a ripped-from-the-headlines series to offer surprising twists and turns, heartbreaking flashbacks, and riveting courtroom showdowns. But even more importantly, it’s The Thing About Pam’s performances from actors breaking from their established molds that make it stand out in an overpacked genre.