The Thing About Pam: How NBC Took the Twisty Murder Case From Dateline to Renee Zellweger TV Series
Creating a scripted TV adaptation of “The Thing About Pam” was a no-brainer for NBC News executives looking to expand their IP beyond the podcast of that name and “Dateline NBC” reporting that preceded it.
“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 Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News. “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.”
The resulting limited series, also called “The Thing About Pam” and made in partnership with Blumhouse TV, stars Renée Zellweger in her network TV debut. Bowing March 8 on NBC, it’s the first scripted adaptation from NBC News Studios, launched a little more than two years ago to help feed the parent company’s growing number of platforms.
Zellweger got involved after learning about the project during a Blumhouse meeting and became a producer on the series. A fan of the podcast, she and producing partner Carmella Casinelli already wanted to tell the story of Pam Hupp, a duplicitous Midwesterner eventually charged with the 2011 murder of her cancer-stricken friend.
“We had actually been, like many people, trying to pursue the rights to ‘Pam’ on our own,” says Casinelli, “and when they brought up ‘Pam,’ we stopped them in their tracks and said that we have to do this with you — we were obsessed with this story.”
The adaptation pulls off a tricky tone, balancing horrific mendacity with moments of levity. “Dateline NBC” mainstay Keith Morrison provides wry narration to the twisty tale.
“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, who had worked on series including “Supernatural,” immediately warmed to Casinelli’s suggestion 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 she 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.
Oppenheim’s priority was keeping the production as truthful as possible — Morrison’s narration included. “We obviously have made sure that anything that Keith is saying in the show is factually accurate,” he says, describing the narration as “a nice piece of connective tissue between this version of the story and the story that we’ve told on ‘Dateline.’”
While certain elements of the timeline were compressed for “The Thing About Pam,” the series relies heavily on “Dateline” research about Betsy Faria’s death and Hupp’s machinations to frame her friend’s husband for it. Russ Faria was convicted of Betsy’s murder, but that verdict was overturned, and last year Hupp was charged with the crime. Additionally, she is serving a life sentence for the 2016 murder of Louis Gumpenberger.
“As with any scripted version of a true story, the creative team took license, and there is a disclaimer at the top of the show that makes that very clear,” says Oppenheim, who notes that some of the dialogue taken from public records matches what was said on “Dateline” episodes word for word.
The show’s writers conducted their own research to get a better understanding what happened before putting pen to paper. “Even knowing that this would be a dramatic retelling where we fictionalize certain characters or completed timelines, we still first needed to understand the fact that to the best of our ability, and that meant reaching out to everyone involved in the Faria case, people who knew Pam Hupp,” says Klein, an avowed true-crime junkie working on her first adaptation of a nonfictional story. “If they were willing to talk to the writers, we wanted to listen to their accounts.”
The showrunner plotted episodes so the viewers could see Hupp’s deceptions before the characters onscreen. “One of the core questions of the show is, how could something like this happen? Why do we fall for people like Pam, and what presumptions do we make when we see her?” says Klein, who wanted viewers to be shouting at their TVs over Hupp’s lies. “Even when she’s contradicting herself in every other breath, it’s still difficult to penetrate her mask of normalcy.”
Adds McCumber: “From the get-go, the mission was to always be respectful of the people who were involved in what happened, because there really were some obviously very, very serious things here.” He maintains that a story with this many twists and turns is “really tailor-made for a scripted event series.”
For Oppenheim, the whole point was to find a new way to tell a true-crime story that has resonated with network viewers.
“‘Dateline’ has told the story a number of times in a very straightforward journalistic fashion, and there would not have been much point in simply replicating that,” he says. “Part of the opportunity of a scripted adaptation is to look at the story through a new lens — and I think that that’s what they’ve done in a really exciting and interesting way.”
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