Renée Zellweger wants to win you over “at any cost.” She not only says that, she writes it on a notecard, underlines it and makes it a book title. “What/If” employs the same strategy. It doesn’t just weave its mystery, it hits audiences over the head with its plot points, repeats them and makes sure you understand them. The show works better as a reminder of the elements we loved of the Adrian Lyne style erotic thriller. It delights in this dark, pulpy and sexually seductive high-stakes world. In many ways, “What/If” is much like a glass of chardonnay on a hot summer day. One or two makes for a wonderful afternoon. Three or four and things start blending together. Once you get past five, six or more episodes, you may need to lie down and stop.
Anne Montgomery (Zellweger), a wealthy author and entrepreneur, sits atop gorgeous San Francisco and wields her wealth and power with a casual smirk. Her latest investment/victim is Lisa Donovan (Jane Levy), an idealistic head of a struggling biotech company. Lisa wants to use her firm’s technology to offer specialized medical treatment to save lives. After Anne, purposely or coincidentally, runs into Lisa’s idyllic husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), at his bartending job, she insists on meeting with Lisa. Anne’s question for Lisa is simple: “Would you do anything for your company?” More specifically, Anne will give Lisa her investment if Anne can spend a night with Sean, no questions asked. “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad ’90s movie,” Lisa replies. “I thought that film was quite decent,” Anne quips back, fully knowing she’s ripping off “Indecent Proposal.”
At first glance, it seems odd Renée Zellweger chooses this as her re-introduction to the world, before “Judy.” Her career was built on being the strong, likable rom-com heroine a la “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Jerry Maguire,” and game musical performer (see “Chicago”). Though “Cold Mountain” won her an Oscar, her forays into straight dramas have aged less well. “What/If” takes Zellweger’s penchant for affectations, heightens it to near Ruby Thewes levels, and lets her have fun with it. She relishes every monologue, extends every gesture and sells every expensive outfit that makes her look like Catherine Trammell for the superhero era. Whether she’s always aiming for it or not, Zellweger achieves the level of camp the rest of the show aims for. Maybe “What/If” was the perfect vehicle for her all along.
If she’s the Robert Redford in this “Indecent Proposal” narrative, then the biggest issue revolves around the Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson stand ins – with the plural for “stand ins” intentional. Jane Levy and Blake Jenner are pretty and engaging enough to be the young couple for Anne to corrupt. Their chemistry is believable, which sells the stakes of the central premise. Levy, in particular, gives offers an interesting, likable protagonist as a woman trying to do good with her company, even if she has to do bad along the way. The show not only spends a bit too much time with them, but they spend a substantially unnecessary amount of time with Lisa and Sean’s friends.
Two other couples experience their own sexually charged conflicts. Sean’s high school best friend, Todd (Keith Powers), is married to Angela (Samantha Marie Ware), a wonderfully accomplished doctor. Unbeknownst to Todd, Angela takes frequent trips to supply closets or spare rooms with Dr. Ian Harris (Dave Annable). Much of this storyline feels cobbled together from a something more rote and histrionic. The other subplot, which involves Lisa’s brother Marcos (Juan Castano) and his partner Lionel (John Clarence Stewart), at least explores an often reduced nuance of gay relationships. Following one afternoon in a bar, Marcos is flirted with by Kevin (Derek Smith), a charming go-go boy. When he tells Lionel about it, Lionel suggests that they open their relationship up to include hanky panky with Kevin. While the subplot feels increasingly estranged from the central storyline, it at least offers a unique storyline that feels fresh, sexy and new.
One wonders how “What/If” might fare if it were a movie released in theaters after Zellweger had been an Oscar winner. So many of Netflix’s projects start with a good premise and a nice hook. The problem lies after audiences take the bate. Rather than have a nifty three act 100 minute feature, “What/If” has a 7 episode second act. The middle section of the show builds out the characters we care less about. All Zellweger gets to do is strut around in businesswoman chic.
Creator Mike Kelley knows how to make a grand, soapy, summer show. The first season of “Revenge” was endlessly entertaining as it upped the ante in crazy, over the top ways. “What/If” exhibits the same heightened, engrossing thrills that reminds one of a good paperback novel. The problem is it never ups the ante after such a strong start.