Remember the woman who played me in all the Bridget Jones movies? Well now she’s starring in this new Netflix drama (and that’s giving the show a lot of credit) called What/If. And let me tell you, it’s v.v.v. bad.
Renee Zellweger stars as Anne Montgomery, a wealthy beyond your wildest dreams venture capitalist who is damaged with a capital “D.” She gives struggling bio tech entrepreneur Lisa (Jane Leevy, who I loved in Suburgatory didn’t you?) and her husband Sean (Blake Jenner, all grown up from The Glee Project but still affectless) the offer they can’t refuse: she’ll invest $80 million in Lisa’s company Emigen in exchange for one night with Sean. (I mean Sean is cute but he’s no Mark Darcy.)
What’s that you say diary? This sounds a lot like the premise to the classic 1993 film Indecent Proposal, with Zellweger taking over the Robert Redford role and Levy as a stand in for Woody Harrelson? Why yes, you would be right and it’s something the 10-episode series acknowledges right from the jump. “This whole idea is ripped out of a bad ‘90s movie,” Lisa scoffs when Anne initially explains her offer. In his letter to TV critics, showrunner Mike Kelley says he was interested in doing a “flipped gender roles” version of the story. But acknowledging the elephant in the room doesn’t make the elephant any less cumbersome and annoying.
Let’s get the big problem out of the way first. It is with a heavy heart that I tell you it’s Zellweger. Part of it is the production of the show, which accompanies nearly every one of Anne’s moves with increasingly melodramatic music and often, just in case we aren’t getting the hint, lightning bolts. At one point, Anne shoots an arrow that just misses Lisa’s head. I wanted to scream at my TV the same thing I often scream at my children, “Alright. That’s ENOUGH!”
I’ve been trying, dear diary, to figure out why I so enjoyed Madeleine Stowe’s performance in Revenge and found Zellweger’s so grating. And I think it’s because Stowe didn’t take herself or her character too seriously. We, the audience, were in on the joke. Zellweger doesn’t seem to be having any fun here. She’s buying the utter nonsense the show is selling.
I loved the first few seasons of Revenge, until it went off the rails. What/If begins from a position of being off the rails. There’s a lot going on. Everybody has an unhappy backstory. Sean is a failed major league player who insists, in the beginning, of exclusively talking in baseball clichés. Lisa’s parents died in a house fire when she was 3 and she was adopted by her nanny. Marcos (Juan Castano) is Lisa’s brother, and her adopted parents’ natural son, and he has a SECRET. Todd (Keith Powers) and Angela (Samantha Maire Ware) are Sean’s friends from high school. They also have SECRETS. Angela is a young resident having an affair with a doctor (Dave Annable, probably the most comfortable with all the show’s nonsense).
Kelley likes to have his characters behave in ways that are over-the-top and would never actually happen. Marcos’ live-in boyfriend Lionel (John Clarence Stewart) is a real estate agent who has an open house where he commandeers all his friends to act out scenes in each of the rooms. The prospective home buyers seem to think this is just great and are perfectly unconcerned that there’s a naked man in the bedroom, or a couple on the brink of a break-up in the living room. No one is asking what the monthly water bill is, or how old the roof is.
The dialogue is wooden and cliched. “Regret is all I’ve had since the moment we met,” Lisa tells Anne. “I’m no one’s victim,” Anne tells her trusty servant Foster (Louis Herthum). A clause in the agreement stipulates that Sean can never tell Lisa what transpired between him and Anne on that fateful night. “If I tell you what happened, we won’t come back from it,” Sean tells her.
The dialogue between Sean and Lisa is one of the show’s biggest issues, given that they’re constantly having the same conversation over and over. They’ve made a mistake. Their trust has been broken. They can’t go back to the couple they once were. Blah. Blah. Blah.
Netflix, has of course, pioneered the whole binge stream-a-poolza so many platforms are so fond of these days. When a show like What/If is viewed back to back, the ridiculousness of the series stands out so much it’s hard to get around it. Would Zellweger’s performance be more dramatically arch than laughably arch if I had a week off in between lightning bolts? Perhaps.
Kelley says that with this series, he wants to explore how a single, fateful decision can change the trajectory of your entire life. His letter seems to imply there will be additional seasons, with a new cast of characters. Honestly, at this point, that seems more like a threat.
The joy, guilty pleasure, escape-from-this-crazy-world a show like What/If should provide simply isn’t there.
But more than anything, dear diary, I couldn’t help but wonder: What/If I didn’t watch?
All 10 episodes of What/If premieres March 24 on Netflix.