Created by Mike Kelley
Starring Renée Zellweger, Jane Levy, Blake Jenner
Sometimes you have to wonder what Renée Zellweger must have been thinking with all the unapologetic trash surrounding her in Netflix’s 10-episode soap What/If: I’m an Oscar winner, what am I doing pruning a sad bonsai tree like a demented gardener? I have a role as Judy Garland coming up, why do I have to shoot arrows at the butt of an indoor sculpture while delivering one of my diva speeches? And then you witness the committed goofiness of her performance as wicked venture capitalist Anne Montgomery, and then you realize she must be thinking: Screw it. At least I get to wear a backless dress with a cinched waist and 10-inch heels while burning a whole apartment down.
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To say that What/If is trash is to state the obvious. To say that it is bad is to misunderstand the basic definition of a soap. It is a genre that lays the excess on thick—whether it be gorgeous outfits or leaps of logic—to the point where all that cholesterol for your brain must be clogging neurons everywhere, and yet you can’t stop eating it up.
Zellweger plays one of those characters that soaps specialize in: the mysterious femme fatale with a hidden agenda. When we first see her in a hotel bar, the camera seems to be rounding a corner, first revealing her toned calves, then the careless splay of a skirt, and then her face, half-hidden by a tall-backed chair. Her Anne Montgomery drops into the lives of pretty San Francisco couple Lisa (Don’t Breathe’s Jane Levy) and Sean Donovan (Glee alum Blake Jenner) at a crucial junction: Lisa is a brilliant biotechnician desperate to secure funds for her medtech startup before it goes belly-up; Sean is a bartender/failed baseball player hoping to start a second career as a firefighter. Anne summons Lisa and Sean for a pitch meeting, but she doesn’t ask for a prospectus. No, in exchange for 80 million dollars in funding, she wants one night with Sean.
Here’s another note of caution: to write off What/If as an Indecent Proposal rip-off is to undercut the velocity and ferocity of the twists that follow that initial setup. Mike Kelley is a creative mind who loves the absurdity of soaps, the baked-in secrets that guarantee revelations at the most devastating of times, and it’s obvious that he designed this first season of 10 episodes to burn bright and then flame out like a sparkler in your iPad. There is not one single episode that isn’t entertaining—or at least, not one episode without a glitzy party or a high-stakes board meeting in it.
What it does have, unfortunately, are moments that lag, brought on by the anthology format of its subplots. Apart from Lisa and Sean battling wits with Anne, there are their friends Todd (Keith Powers) and Angela Archer (Samantha Marie Ware), who are dealing with a pregnancy and Angela’s affair with her head of surgery (Brothers and Sisters’ Dave Annable, who externalizes his zaniness while Zellweger internalizes hers). And then there is Lisa’s adopted brother Marcos (Juan Castano), a public defender who indulges in a threesome with his partner Lionel (John Clarence Stewart) and a swarthy go-go dancer (Derek Smith)—a portrayal of a same-sex relationship that is commendable and yet boring. (There is an interlude involving indoor camping and magic mushrooms that is particularly eye-rolling.) I couldn’t care less about these fatty subplots, get me back to Anne and her machinations!
Another thing going against What/If is that, despite its Netflix budget, it cannot help but betray the small, TV scale of its genre. As with most soaps, it’s all about intimate confrontations in well-appointed rooms, which both emphasizes and does a disservice to the outsize nature of Zellweger’s performance. The star delivers devastating line readings with her trademark squint and baby-voiced whisper—it’s like watching a toddler sling knives with deadly precision.
Kelley briefly resuscitated the nighttime soap with the first season of his bonkers fantasy Revenge, before squeezing all the wit and juice out of his concept with the network demands of follow-up seasons. It is only with this bit of prior history that I say, Bring on season 2… but what if we tread with caution?
What/If is currently streaming on Netflix.