“Everything happens for a reason. Think about that for a moment,” says Renée Zellweger’s Anne Montgomery, out loud, to no one but a dictaphone sitting on her desk. “All your efforts – personal, professional, carnal – utter and absolute slaves to some cosmically predetermined set out of outcomes.” It’s the sort of monologuing you’d expect from a supervillain, who gazes upon their doomsday machine, prepped to zap half the world’s population and turn them into fleshy mush. Certainly, Netflix’s What/If opens with the same kind of self-serious philosophising that dominates so many of the streaming service’s original dramas – all part of an ongoing effort to deliver enough high-concept ideas that it beats out HBO as the king of prestige TV.
The problem with What/If, however, is that its initial sell is a little bit of a false promise. This isn’t a profound meditation on free will – it’s a soap opera. All of the sex scenes are accompanied by the romantic twinkling of a piano and it takes no time at all for one of the side characters to reveal their infidelity. In the end, a deep and meaningful premise is undercut by all the melodramatics. When Zellweger has finished her monologue, she grabs a pen to passionately scrawl out the words: “At any cost”. As the next scene reveals, it’s actually the title of her best-selling book.
Zellweger’s Anna is a venture capitalist with particularly unsavoury business methods. As the show’s pilot episode reveals, she’s picked two victims – married couple Lisa (Jane Levy) and Sean (Blake Jenner) – for a kind of social experiment. She offers to back Lisa’s failing genetic research company to the tune of $80m, but only if Sean agrees to spend the night with her.
If that all sounds a little familiar, it’s essentially a gender-flipped version of 1993’s Indecent Proposal and, dutifully, a few lines of dialogue acknowledge the similarities. “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad 1990s movie,” Lisa points out. “I thought that film was quite decent,” Anna replies. You half expect her to look right down the barrel of the camera and wink. Certainly, What/If has a reverence for the thrillers of the era, considering Phillip Noyce (behind Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) directed the first episode.
However, the show is quick to tease that Anna has plans that extend far beyond the bedroom. That mystery in itself could be enough to hook viewers for the entire series, but the first episode is so packed with complicated and outlandish explanations (who owes money to who and what will happen if they don’t pay it), that there’s little hope of a neat conclusion. Although the series may rely on a darker, moodier palette than most soap operas, there’s no ignoring the fact that this show only triumphs when it embraces its genre and delivers pure camp, though it happens too infrequently to feel satisfying. Mostly, those moments involve Anna, whose favourite hobby seems to be staring out of windows while apocalyptic thunderstorms rage outside.
Zellweger’s work here, combined with her role as Judy Garland in the forthcoming biopic, marks a clear attempt at a major comeback. We’ll have to see about the latter, but she’s let down by What/If’s flimsy script. The Oscar winner simply doesn’t have much to chew on. It’s a shame, really, considering that today’s television landscape is so notable in finally giving actresses the complex characters they deserve – see the women of Big Little Lies, for example, or Julia Roberts in Homecoming. But Zellweger’s primary role here is just to deliver lines deliciously. She not only succeeds in the task, but she turns it into a three-course banquet, teasing out every line suggestively. She makes the best of what she’s given – if only the rest of What/If could keep pace with her.
What/If will be released on Netflix on 24 May
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