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Renée Zellweger is too much of a distraction on NBC's The Thing About Pam

  • NBC's miniseries on the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria can't escape its ties to Dateline. "The Thing About Pam isn’t a documentary because that approach has already been done for this story by NBC itself in a podcast of the same name and five Dateline episodes," says Roxana Hadadi. "Instead, this fictionalized miniseries is partially a meta-experiment in the newsmagazine format’s reliance on dramatic reenactments, partially NBC patting itself on the back for Dateline helping to release an innocent man, and partially Zellweger doing the most, and The Thing About Pam cannot sustain all three. Of that trio, Zellweger is the most incongruous component in a performance that prioritizes caricature, and she calls into question what exactly The Thing About Pam is trying to accomplish with this extension of its existing IP. Entertainment? Journalism? Whatever it is, Zellweger is a distraction. Her face nearly immobile under caked-on makeup and her physicality stilted by body prosthetics, Zellweger is simultaneously broadly cartoonish and blandly nonspecific. She squints so much that her eyes lose whatever interiority they might have reflected; there is no real difference between her smile or her frown. She slurps on gigantic canteens of fountain soda, the scraping of the straw along the cup’s bottom both a pervasive irritant and a character-development shortcut. Zellweger plays Hupp like a passive-aggressive Karen who strong-arms people to her will via a mixture of guilt trips and performative self-pity, but there’s a disconnect from the very beginning between Zellweger’s unconvincing performance and the series’ insistence that Hupp charmed and manipulated her small-town neighbors."


    • The Thing About Pam does an impressive job of translating an addictive tale to the small screen: "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," says Gwen Ihnat. "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."
    • Acting through prosthetics, Renée Zellweger's performance is diminished, dimming her comic timing: "Not that the show tends to give its performances room to breathe," says Daniel D'Addario. "If it really trusted its star, it might either have cast someone who fulfilled the brief of looking like Pam Hupp or have allowed Zellweger to summon her essential spirit without prosthetics that degrade subject and star both. Pam’s angst came from somewhere, but — as on FX’s Impeachment — there seems to be a conflation of physical size and lack of grace with mania, a connection emphasized by how attention-getting the uncanniness and weirdness of Zellweger’s reinvention. (In her prosthetics, she simply doesn’t look or move in a way that feels real. It’s a problem!)"
    • The Thing About Pam should've tried to distinguish itself from Dateline: "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," says Brian Lowry. "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 can't match what NBC's streaming and cable rivals accomplish with the limited series format: "Miniseries used to be a foundational piece of the broadcast television landscape," says Daniel Fienberg. "But since cable and streaming appropriated the form, rebranded it “limited series” and turned it into an opportunity for ostensible movie stars to do six or eight hours of TV without a longer-term commitment, broadcast hasn’t been able to keep up. And when broadcast networks have tried to do a limited series in this vein — think ABC’s Women of the Movement or CBS’ Red Line or Fox’s Shots Fired — even the good ones haven’t gotten the critical or awards traction necessary to inspire a trend. Don’t expect NBC’s The Thing About Pam to do the trick, either. The presence of Renée Zellweger should attract some initial curiosity, and the multiple Oscar winner’s fatsuit-enhanced performance is, indeed, a primary reason to tune in. Nothing else in the tonally inconsistent, narratively sluggish series has the compelling hook of whatever limited series that Hulu, HBO, Netflix and the rest seem to turn around on a weekly basis."
    • Zellweger delivers a big, juicy, wonderfully disruptive performance: "When we first saw images and footage of Zellweger in prosthetics and padded suit, there was an outcry from some who lamented that the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t hire an actress whose natural size more closely mirrored Pam Hupp," says Richard Roeper. "It’s a legitimate point — but actors have been relying on the artistic deceit of makeup and costume to transform themselves since the beginning of drama, and beneath the prosthetics and padding, it’s Zellweger’s performance that shines through. She becomes Pam Hupp in part because of the physical transformation, but mostly because that’s what fine actors do — they make us believe they’re someone else entirely."
    • The Thing About Pam is refreshingly weird: "Too often, there's a queasy note of apology running through these true-life adaptations," says Kristen Baldwin. "(Sure, Elizabeth Holmes duped people with cancer, but do you know how hard it is to be a female CEO in Silicon Valley?) The Thing About Pam lives in Dateline's world, where there are only two types of people involved in heinous crimes: victims and killers. Zellweger, her A-list face and petite frame buried under layers of artificial bulk, attacks the role with a cheeky, steely-eyed bravado. Her Pam is a master manipulator disguised as a chatty busybody, and an attention-seeking martyr capable of casual cruelty. Pam depicts the character's childhood as generally miserable — her family was poor, her mother Shirley (Celia Weston, in an exquisitely shrewish turn) a drinker with a penchant for savage insults. Still, based on the four episodes made available for review, the show has no interest in generating sympathy for anyone other than the people Pam hurt."
    • The Thing About Pam should've been a feature film: "The thing about the new NBC limited series The Thing About Pam is that it's emblematic of a relatively new phenomenon, one that speaks to just how dominant episodic storytelling has become in our media landscape," says Ciara Wardlow. "Not too long ago, it was all too common to see stories that would have been better for episodic television ineffectively crammed into feature films, the plots of phonebook-sized tomes chopped beyond recognition to have a beginning, middle, and end in under three hours. But now the script has been flipped—the default is episodic, even to a fault. Now, it's the stories that feel like they would be perfect for a three-act structure and two-hour runtime that are instead being spread thin into series." Wardlow adds: "Showrunner Jenny Klein effectively emulates the Dateline air, with help from Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison—who hosted the true crime podcast from which the miniseries is adapted—while also bringing the inherent weirdness of Dateline and the whole true crime entertainment complex to the fore. There's nothing inherently wrong with this angle, indeed it’s quite innately appealing, but the easy-viewing procedural of it all, with clearly delineated villainy and victimhood straight out of the gate, makes for a story so straightforward it has no choice but to spin in circles. On one hand, The Thing About Pam maintains a comedic edge, but on the other, it often backs away from truly committing to the bit; you can almost feel the show fretting over how far is too far for an NBC series based on a true crime involving real people, all of whom (save Pam’s victims) are still alive."
    • The Thing About Pam is not believable enough to be moving or sharp enough to be satire: "While providing superficial nods to Pam’s grievances, The Thing About Pam repeatedly recedes into a one-note character study, a regression only emphasized by Renée Zellweger’s exaggerated lead performance," says Ben Travers. "Pam Hupp is a villain. A bad, bad lady. A killer who loved twisting the knife long before she stabbed her best friend 55 times. If you’re looking for any further insight, look elsewhere. The thing about The Thing About Pam is that its main interest is making fun." Travers adds: "Zellweger’s much-hyped 'transformation' doesn’t help. Her prosthetics (especially a widened nose) read as deadened rubber. Her padded suit appears comically enlarged compared to the real Hupp. Combined with Zellweger’s heightened 'Missourah' accent and the way she mindlessly sucks down gas station Big Gulps, the character plays up gross stereotypes that have nothing to do with her despicable actions. Investigators initially ignored Pam based on assumptions — she’s just a suburban housewife, how could she do such a horrid thing? — but this version asks a different question: Are we supposed to revile Pam because she’s a lying, manipulative murderer, or because she’s an overweight hick?"
    • Makeup artist Arjen Tuiten spent 80 minutes applying Renée Zellweger's prosthetics: Tuiten started working with Zellweger over Zoom to gauge how the actor would feel sitting for the extensive process. Afterwards, Tuiten watched videos of the real-life Pam Hupp to see her expressions and how she would hold her arms. “I also looked at her nose and how it would look when she turned. Or I would see things like where she had plastic surgery.” As for casting a skinny actress to play Hupp, Blumhouse Television’s Chris McCumber explains the producers’ reasoning: “In this era of peak TV, having an artist of Renée’s caliber is an incredible advantage. When a two-time Oscar winner calls and says, ‘I’m obsessed with this story, and I want to play Pam, and I want to produce,’ you say, ‘Yes, yes, yes and yes.’ And our job, at that point, is to provide Renée, and the rest of the cast, with all the tools that they need to embody these characters.”
    • NBC News wanted to expand its intellectual property, and the Pam Hupp story stood out: “We started looking into the Dateline archives for some of the most interesting stories that they’ve told, and The Thing About Pam immediately stood out — we’ve been covering its various twists and turns going back to 2014,” says NBC News president Noah Oppenheim. “And I think it was clear to everyone pretty quickly that there was enough material in this story to support a scripted adaptation that would lend itself to a fresh telling.” Extending NBC News' brand included having Keith Morrison provide narration. “I think fans are gonna go nuts when they hear his voice,” says Chris McCumber, president of Blumhouse Television. “And in many ways, it was very on-brand to have his voice there.” Showrunner Jenny Klein immediately warmed to the suggestion by Zellweger's producing partner Carmella Casinelli that Morrison narrate the show, figuring, “Why wouldn’t you want to use one of the most iconic voices of my lifetime in our true-crime story?” But Klein wrote his voice-over to be more omniscient than it is on Dateline, describing its presence in The Thing About Pam as familiar yet strange given the scripted context.
    • Renée Zellweger was "amazed" when she first saw her Pam Hupp transformation: "Amazement, I was amazed," she says. "You might achieve a couple of things, but I had no expectation it was gonna be as remarkable as that." Zellweger adds: "The idea is to be accurate, the idea is accuracy. I think, especially in the case of telling this story, it was really important to as closely resemble Pam Hupp as we possibly could, because she seems so familiar, she seems like someone that we recognize, and we know."
    • Renée Zellweger dug into the "psychological aspect" of portraying Pam Hupp, as well as the practical elements of transforming her physical appearance: “She’s very animated and it’s a great tool, but it’s also very alluring,” Zellweger says of the real-life Hupp. “She has this very charismatic way of bringing you in with her. The way that she speaks and her mouth, it’s amazing. It’s really rare to see someone so busy, either smacking their lips or pulling on their cheeks or kind of sniffing. She sniffs quite a bit. I think all of these are triggers and are telling, these mannerisms.” Zellweger says she wanted to create "an approximation of (Hupp's) physical appearance: Wow does she speak? How does she move? How does she walk?  How is she received by people in the world, what’s her physical presence like?” Zellwegger adds that The Thing About Pam is a throwback to weekly appointment television. “(It's) so rare these days,” she says. “It’s all streaming and bespoke. I’m of a generation where if you weren’t home to see The Wizard of Oz, too bad for you, and too bad for you if you missed The Sound of Music. It seemed like a really cool opportunity to do something that would be celebrated in a different way in a time where television is sort of evolving in a different direction.”

    TOPICS: The Thing About Pam, NBC, Arjen Tuiten, Carmella Casinelli, Chris McCumber, Jenny Klein, Noah Oppenheim, Renée Zellweger, Hair and Makeup, NBC News