The first two episodes of Netflix’s What/If — directed by Phillip Noyce (Salt, Clear and Present Danger) and starring Renee Zellweger, Jane Levy, and Blake Jenner — are fairly entertaining trash. Still, there’s enough talent behind the series, which comes from Mike Kelley (Revenge) and exec-producer Robert Zemeckis, that it’s hard to tell if it’s intentionally trashy or not. Is What/If a specifically engineered to be an over-the-top, poorly written, badly-and-over-acted twisty soap opera that might appeal to the Riverdale crowd, or is it am unintentionally risible series that is also vaguely addictive?
By the fifth or sixth episode, it stops mattering if What/If is unintentionally bad or if it purposely bad because it becomes apparent that, either way, the show has nothing up its sleeves to redeem itself, that it’s not going to reveal itself to be a secretly brilliant series underneath the layers of wet garbage. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter how much talent is in front of or behind the camera or if the show is total crap or an homage to crap, because the end result is the same: It’s crap. Albeit, it is a crap that — in the tradition of many a Netflix series — generates just enough vague intrigue in the last five minutes of each episode to compel the viewer to continue clicking “Next Episode” until the entire series is mercifully over, leaving viewers not with a sense of satisfaction, but a vague sense of relief because we no longer have to suffer anymore to find the answers we were only marginally interested in.
In other words, it’s like really cheap store-bought nacho cheese: Once you start, you can’t finish, but there’s never a moment of joy in the experience of eating it, and afterward all you’re left with is a bigger gut and a deep sense of shame and revulsion.
Jane Levy stars as Lisa, the CEO and founder of a biotech startup called Emigen. She’s on the verge of a big scientific breakthrough, but she can’t find the funding she needs to continue. Enter Zellweger’s venture capitalist, Anne Montgomery, a wealthy, Cougar-y evil Cruella DeVille seemingly inspired by the Trump Administration maxim: “The cruelty is the point.” She offers Lisa $80 million in exchange with a night with her husband, Sean Donovan (Blake Jenner), a former San Francisco Giants baseball player with severe rage issues.
The series plays off of the Indecent Proposal premise (and even alludes to that movie), but there’s a twist: Sean and Lisa contractually agree never to speak of the events of the night, not even with each other, and Lisa — like the viewer — is left to wonder if Sean and Anne slept with each other, or if Anne forced him to do something violent and nefarious (Spoiler: By the time it is revealed, you won’t care anymore). The exercise here is not designed to give Anne a night of lovemaking with a man half her age, but to shatter Lisa’s confidence in her marriage. But to what ends?
Why Anne would want to break up Lisa’s marriage isn’t revealed until the finale, and I dare not spoil that for you, except to say that it’s actually too dumb to be predictable. Anne’s motivations are inscrutable, and you just can’t predict the inscrutable.
It’s a ten-episode series, and there’s not enough meat in the Sean/Anne/Lisa storyline to fill the entire show, so there are also two other only tangentially related storylines, one concerning Lisa’s gay brother — whose guilt over his mysterious past basically drives him toward a threesome — and another storyline concerning Sean and Lisa’s best friends, Todd and Angela, the latter of whom is having an affair with a violent doctor who may or may not be a serial stalker-rapist (spoiler: He totally is). It’s in these two storylines, which don’t have Levy or Zellweger to rise above the material, where What/If really shows its true colors. They’re like porn movies without any of the porn. I’ve seen better writing finger-painted in feces on bathroom stall doors.
It’s a bad show that only gets worse the further it moves along, but also takes advantage of the sunk-cost fallacy: Once you’re halfway through, you recognize how truly terrible it is, but you’ve already invested five hours in the series, so you feel compelled to follow through to recoup your investment. Trust me: It’s not worth it (and later this week, I’ll write a spoiler post for those who want to know but can’t muster the strength to continue). Granted, while Levy is completely wasted, Zellweger is a pro, and she delivers exactly the sort of deliciously overripe performance called for here, only she seems to be the only actor in on the joke. She’s having a great time, but everyone else is trying so hard to make What/If appear as competent that they don’t even realize that they’ve been sucked into all of the scenery that Zellweger is chewing. By the end, you may find yourself wishing that you’d get sucked in, too, but all you feel is chewed up and spit out.
Header Image Source: Netflix