It’s officially the age of the true-crime limited series. Shocking stories that have made headlines are fodder for dramatic reimagining, inviting viewers in to understand the complexities of the story, which in almost every case is considerably embellished for entertainment purposes. What’s most intriguing about the trend of this kind of programming is that it appears most often on cable networks like FX and HBO and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The latest such effort, The Thing About Pam, represents an unexpected foray from a network better known for procedurals and sitcoms: NBC.
There is more to distinguish The Thing About Pam from the rest without even delving too much into its story. Unlike other mysteries that keep audiences guessing about who the killer is, this show announces it in its opening moments. It even adds that the prime suspect, Russ Faria (Glenn Fleshler), the husband of the deceased, Betsy (Katy Mixon), isn’t guilty despite the overwhelming evidence that presents itself. As its title suggests, Betsy’s friend Pam (Renée Zellweger) is the one to watch, and why precisely she does what she does isn’t clear, but there’s just something about her that doesn’t feel right.
The Thing About Pam is most stylistically reminiscent of Marc Cherry, whose series Desperate Housewives and Why Women Kill find a way to glean humor out of murders and the people who commit them. Those shows are not based on true stories in the way this show is, and there isn’t the same buoyancy and quirkiness that defines them. But Pam is absolutely eccentric, and there’s a certain comedy to be found in the singlemindedness of the investigating detectives and how no one is able to see that, even if she didn’t necessarily do it, it’s well worth questioning her because something about her is off.
Zellweger is one of the top reasons to tune into this series. The actress, who made her acting debut three decades ago, netted three consecutive Oscar nominations in the early 2000s, winning on her third try for Cold Mountain. She was largely absent for a good portion of the next fifteen years, returning in 2019 to play Judy Garland and win a second Oscar. That same year, she anchored the Netflix thriller series What/If, which got cancelled after just one season. In what is only her second-ever TV role, Zellweger delivers a nuanced and intriguing performance that makes Pam hard to read but very easy to watch.
While traditional broadcast networks have not jumped on the bandwagon of true-crime limited series, there have been a few exceptions, including one from NBC, Law & Order: True Crime. Meant to be an anthology series, its first season, subtitled The Menendez Murders, aired back in 2017 with no word of any successive storylines. The Thing About Pam stands separate in that it isn’t meant to be a new twist on a popular franchise, instead telling a unique story that will cover a specific and predefined period of time, with no option for a second season or further exploration of its characters.
What makes The Thing About Pam most interesting is how it reimagines scenes based on how its characters are describing them, adjusting what audiences saw happen earlier in the episode to fit the latest report offered by Pam while she is being questioned and working to cover up a hole in her story. That structure risks repeating a strategy that worked well early on in The Affair and then became tiresome: when too many perspectives are offered and it becomes impossible to distinguish which one is real. The subject matter here is strong enough on its own, and the way it is presented is alternately engaging and frustrating.
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The Thing About Pam premieres Tuesday, March 8th at 10pm on NBC.