Part of the fun of watching Renée Zellweger in What/If, Netflix’s 10-episode melodrama, is imagining the actress’ own inner monologue as she read each script. What went through the Oscar-winner’s mind, for example, when she came to the scene where her character — infamously ruthless venture capitalist Anne Montgomery — harangues a rival in her penthouse… while shooting arrows into a wooden statue’s buttocks? Or how about the capper to episode 5, in which Anne prunes a branch off of a particularly sad-looking bonsai tree, before turning to fix the camera with the menacing, dead-eyed stare of a killer shark? (Also, was Zellweger angry when she discovered the edge of her lace-front wig seemed to be showing the entire time?)
What/If is the creation of Mike Kelley, the man who briefly revived the art of the prime-time soap with ABC’s Revenge. That series delivered opulent camp for about a season-and-a-half, but it ultimately exhausted the narrative’s brilliant absurdity and sputtered along for a few more years on fumes. What/If shares much of Revenge’s glossy DNA — it, too, pits a dastardly diva against a sharp-minded underdog (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy) — but this time Kelley wisely chose to contain his soapy operatics to an anthology format. And as it turns out, limitations can be liberating. Based on the first half of the season, Kelley’s drama plans to burn hot, bright and crazy for 10 episodes before flaming out — if not spectacularly, at least on its own overblown terms. What/If does not jump the shark — it begins with the shark in its rearview mirror and it never looks back.
Lisa Donovan (Levy) is a young and gifted scientist, the founder of a “medical solutions” company called Emigen Molecular Sequencing. All she wants to do is save lives — inspired by her little sister, who died from a curable form of leukemia — but Emigen is broke, just a few months away from total bankruptcy. Enter Anne Montgomery. (Oh boy, does she enter. Zellweger’s character first appears in the back corner of a hotel bar, as the camera pans up her gorgeous gams and stops just short of her face. “I’ll have a gin martini!”) As San Francisco’s most well-known billionaire, Anne can save Lisa’s company with a few keystrokes and a wire transfer — all she wants in return is one night with Lisa’s blankly handsome husband, Sean (Glee’s Blake Jenner).
It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Lisa and Sean accept Anne’s indecent proposal, after some requisite hand-wringing, of course. The money will not only allow Lisa to launch her company with full funding, it will also allow Sean — a former Major League Baseball pitcher whose explosive temper ended his career — to start a new career as a firefighter. But when Sean returns from his night with their mysterious benefactor, his knuckles bloodied and his soul bruised, Lisa knows she’s made a huge mistake (cue GOB Bluth GIF). With no time machine in sight, our heroine decides that the only way she can right this sordid wrong is by uncovering the truth about Anne Montgomery’s motives and finding a way to — in the grim parlance of prime-time skullduggery — take her down.
Nothing about What/If quite clicks. Anne Montgomery is supposed to be fantabulously wealthy — she lives in looming high-rise emblazoned with a giant M, for Pete’s sake — but the panoramic San Francisco “view” outside her penthouse window is quite clearly a painted backdrop that the production does little to disguise. Naturally, she has a butler named Foster (Westworld’s Louis Herthum), but he defies his aristocratic office (and moniker) by following an exclusively business-casual dress code, skulking around in fleece pullovers and open-collared polo shirts. Characters ignore red flags with impunity, as when Lisa learns that Emigen’s first clinical trial resulted in “100 percent efficacy” — a figure any scientist, especially a brilliant wunderkind like herself, would immediately find suspect.
The thing is, this show seems to know it’s a mess. Soap opera is a genre that rewards excess — from oversized shoulder pads to gargantuan leaps of logic — and Kelley, along with director Phillip Noyce, presents everything to the viewer with a cheery, exaggerated wink. When she’s not shooting arrows at Lisa, Anne holds subtext-laden expository conversations with her next to an expensive-looking chessboard. Almost every episode features a fancy gala, including “a black tie gathering of elite rivals at the top of their fields,” an affair dubbed “The Détente.” And the key to Anne Montgomery’s shadowy past is literally a giant set of keys, displayed with ominous prominence in a glass case smack in the middle of her penthouse.
The ensemble takes a variety of approaches to this material. As Lisa, Levy is focused and controlled; you can practically feel the actress straining to ground the wild What/If universe in some semblance of reality. It’s a bit disappointing: Levy is a talented performer with a gift for wry humor, and I found myself wishing she allowed herself to have a little more fun. Instead, she’s like a bookish student who does all the work on a group project while her lab partners doodle in their notebooks and stare into space. Of all the supporting players – including Samantha Ware as Lisa’s best friend Angela and Juan Castano as Lisa’s brother Marcos — only Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters) seems dialed in to the show’s freaky frequency. As Angela’s boss/illicit lover Dr. Ian Harris, Annable openly telegraphs the sinister underbelly of his character’s best-boyfriend-ever exterior. (Even his frosty cap of salt-and-pepper hair seems to foretell danger.)
Much of the acting is flat. Jenner, bless his heart, has approximately one expression to convey deep rage, serene happiness, polite confusion. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Everything serves to highlight Zellweger’s gloriously goofy performance. As Anne Montgomery, the actress doesn’t so much chew the scenery as absorb it through every pore. Much like Madeline Stowe in Revenge, Zellweger commands the screen with regal condescension, delivering every line in a breathy, high-pitched murmur — it’s baby talk, weaponized. Whatever drove her to say yes to this bizarre venture (beyond, you know, money), I’m tremendously glad that she did.
The same can be said for Netflix itself. The streamer doesn’t always make good choices when it comes to its copious capital, but — to quote Anne Montgomery, Evil Genius — “nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without sacrifice.” If Netflix (and Zellweger) are willing to sacrifice a bit of their prestige sheen in order to give viewers a weekend’s worth of escapist silliness, good on them both. Pull the car around, Foster — I’d like to take take another trip to crazytown. B