What/If tricked me. I should have realized this would be the case, given that this is the latest creation from Revenge‘s Mike Kelley. It’s not a good show, which makes it all the more remarkable that one cannot stop watching this series. Sort of crack TV, if you will, full of cheap thrills to the point where when they only released 5 out of 10 episodes to critics, I breathed a sigh of relief because these are nearly hour-long chunks. Those take a non-negligible amount of time to watch, and they’re stuffed full of melodrama. Who needs more drama in life, right? Smugly, I was relieved to not feel obliged to watch the entire season. A five-hour bullet had been dodged, and I prepared myself to half-heartedly endorse this mindlessness for what it was — a trashy diversion for two talented actresses who have both starred in award-winning, critically acclaimed projects but wanted to dabble in something lesser, not to mention deranged.
Then something else happened. Netflix made the last half of the season available for review earlier this week, and I felt compelled to finish. At the gym, and while ducking tornadoes that swept through the midwest, I squeezed this puppy in. I wanted to peel back more layers of the crazy surrounding these characters and roll around in the excess. What/If is nuts and has no real reason to exist — Netflix bills this as a neo-noir social thriller — but I’m chuffed that it does exist even if it fails as a morality tale. Much of the appeal comes down to Renée Zellweger (the streaming giant is nabbing Oscar winners now) and Jane Levy (Castle Rock, Suburgatory, Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead, and so on). Both women embrace their unbelievable circumstances and strange dialogue with Levy putting more of a straight-edged face on her character’s plights (and there are many). She grounds this series enough to make it feel slightly human, and that allows Zellweger to float off into space in a soap-opera bubble while vamping it up as a sexy, nihilistic, chess-playing, billionaire venture capitalist named Anne Montgomery.
A sexy, nihilistic, chess-playing, billionaire venture capitalist.
I know. It sounds terrible, and at times, What/If is actively (and probably purposely) bad — a character tearfully confesses to accidentally starting a fire with a magnifying glass at one point — but a fair number of people are going to dig this show if they take the plunge. Zellweger plays someone who feels like a vengeful Jessica Rabbit, a character with so much money that making an $80 million investment, seemingly for fun, doesn’t make her flinch. Anne’s closest contemporary male counterpart would be Oscar Isaac’s eccentric Ex Machina beefcake who pursued the almighty AI by creating sex robots. That role worked for Isaac because he threw himself into elements of the ridiculous (including that dance scene), and Zellweger does the same in the following ways:
(1) Offers the aforementioned huge sum as an Indecent Proposal to a young married couple, Lisa (Levy) and Sean (Blake Jenner), for one night with him. In exchange, she’ll fund Lisa’s genetic sequencing company (and save lives!).
(2) Practices archery in her kitchen to relieve tension, sometimes toward people, nearly grazing the side of their heads to show she means business.
(3) Delivers windy monologues about destiny and faux morality into a recorder (while snipping bonzai trees) that probably hasn’t been seen since 1997.
(4) Slinks around her apartment in tiny pencil skirts, breathing much more than speaking, making Chiclets gum out of the scenery.
(5) Keeps a decorative centerpiece in her penthouse — a glass box filled with keys that might be the literal keys to her mysterious past.
Anne’s a reprehensible person, but that’s only the launching point for this story. And fortunately, though it might appear that way from my brief description, this isn’t really about female rivalry for the sake of it. The stakes are personal, and the apparent reasons twist and turn until season’s end.
Look, if you fell into the addictive nature of Mike Kelley’s Revenge (that lasted four seasons on ABC), you’ll like this pulpy romp. That series starred Madeline Stowe and Emily VanCamp in a similar dynamic, and there as well, the talent involved elevated the material. One added benefit of What/If is that it aims to be an anthology series. So before the story grows too unwieldy like Kelley’s Hamptons-centered series did, each season will take on an entirely different, and hopefully as much dumb fun, tale. Revenge viewers will also enjoy the Easter egg of Gabriel Mann, who plays another venture capitalist and makes the most of his sporadic screentime with Anne. I want Mann to play a different stupid character each season. He’s swell.
So yeah, What/If could be your next weekend binge, full of melodrama and watching characters’ lives go down the tube. The one truly unfortunate aspect is that multiple side stories exist about Lisa’s friends, who are time wasters. For the most part, their plights are mere padding and don’t gel with the larger feel of the series. Getting rid of them could have shaved 15 minutes off each episode with nothing lost. Maybe when it’s second-season time, the series will trim the fat. Yet overall, you’ll hate that you like this aggressively bad dose of campiness that somehow, despite all its bad points, manages to entertain.
Netflix’s ‘What/If’ streams on May 24, 2019.