The opening scene of the new Netflix series What/If tells you everything that you need to know to determine if you will enjoy the series.
Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger), an obviously wealthy woman, stomps around her San Francisco penthouse during a storm, dispensing her garbage self-help manifesto into a hand-held microphone. The longer it goes on (and it goes on – there’s even a moment when the camera cuts to an insert on the recorder that reads 4 minutes), the more passionate she becomes. The speech climaxes as Anne furiously scribbles words on a notepad, viciously and repeatedly underlining her triumphant last line about what it takes to get what you want just as she speaks it: “At Any Cost.”
Audiences familiar with creator Mike Kelley’s Revenge will find much of this heightened drama exceedingly familiar. The speechifying, the powerful woman with nefarious plans, and the tendency to physically write down said plans; it’s all been done before. Kelley clearly has a mode and a genre that he enjoys working in (he writes all ten episodes of this limited event series; I’ve seen three) – it could affectionately be called the “nighttime soap.” It’s melodramatic, the characters are ridiculous (and often formulaic) and everything is in service to the series’ shocking narrative twists.
It’s trashy garbage. And it is SUBLIME.
After Anne’s diatribe, the action jumps forward one year. At Any Cost is now a bestselling book, Anne is an incredibly wealthy venture capitalist and What/If gets the ball rolling by introducing its protagonists: dull-as-dishwater young married couple, Lisa (Jane Levy) and Sean Donovan (Blake Jenner). She is a scientist with medical company that’s seeking investors before it goes bankrupt; he’s a former baseball star who works as an EMT by day and moonlights as a bartender in order to make ends meet. They’re very, very broke (but, like, sexy broke) and Lisa is terrible at pitching her company so things look suitably grim for them…until Anne Montgomery pops her perfectly coiffed ‘do into Sean’s bar. She hits on him, then takes an interest in his sob story when he rebuffs her. Cue an invitation for the couple to attend her swanky party the next night.
Naturally Anne has something more ambitious on her mind than simple charity, so she pitches them: the millionaire wants one night with Sea, no-questions-asked, and in exchange she’ll invest in Lisa’s company to the tune of $80M. Yes, it’s a gender-reversed Indecent Proposal – only with more boring characters!
There’s some humming and hawing, but obviously the young couple cave to her demands (because Anne always gets what she wants, you see). There’s obviously more to her plan than sex, but because of the NDA, Sean can’t discuss what happens, such as why his knuckles are bruised when he returns in the morning or why he seems so distraught. Naturally all of the uncertainty eats away at Lisa and kick-starts a domino effect of lies and schemes, exposing the fragile vulnerability of Lisa and Sean’s relationship while Anne gleefully plots in her swanky San Francisco penthouse (Zellweger rarely leaves the one set, suggesting she parachuted in for a few days work in exchange for a massive pay check).
The main difference between What/If and Revenge is that the latter ABC series had a compelling lead in Emily vanCamp. Levy is typically a decent actress, but the character of Lisa is beyond bland. Even when she’s angrily storming into Anne’s house or crying to her husband, Levy never seems to grasp how to make the character interesting or believable. Jenner is as capable as he was on Glee days, which is to say that he looks good, but struggles with things like characterization, dialogue and emotion. It’s hard to envision what could possibly attract Anne to such a milquetoast pair, even as What/If desperately tries to make Lisa damaged by a childhood trauma and Sean haunted by a secret from his past that involves Hulk-level aggression, his EMT partner, Todd (Keith Powers) and Sean’s trashy ex-girlfriend Maddie (Allie MacDonald), who arrives like a breath of fresh air in episode 2.
Speaking of Todd, What/If struggles mightily – just like Revenge – with its secondary characters. Despite Kelley’s attempts to craft compelling subplots to keep the plates spinning when Zellweger isn’t chewing the scenery, everything outside of the main trio’s Indecent Proposal plot is exceedingly snooze-worthy. In addition to his involvement in Sean’s backstory, Todd is married to Angela (Samantha Marie Ware), a surgeon who is cheating on him with Dr. Ian Harris (Dave Annable, serving Salt N’Pepper Daddy realness). Also in the mix is Lisa’s gay adopted brother, Marcus (Juan Castano) and his partner, Lionel (John Clarence Stewart) who fall under the spell of a hot ginger stripper named Kevin (Derek Smith).
Throw in Lisa’s snappy medical partner, Cassidy (Daniella Pineda), Anne’s henchman Foster (Louis Herthum) and Avery (Saamer Usmani), Lisa’s suuuuuper hot, but untrustworthy new CFO that she steals from Anne and there is A LOT going on on this show.
And yet, there’s simultaneously nothing happening. Despite all of these other characters and subplots, none of it is even remotely interesting or relevant because it is all seemingly unconnected. Knowing Kelley, all of it will come into play as part of Anne’s master plan to control and manipulate Lisa and Sean, but in the early episodes, it all feels like wasted time whenever Marcus or Angela show up onscreen. It is legitimately difficult to stifle an audible groan every time the action cuts away from Anne.
And yet despite all of this terribleness, there is something innately compelling and imminently watchable about What/If. Perhaps it’s the ridiculousness of the plot. Perhaps it’s the time spent speculating about what blackmail was used to recruit Zellweger for the production. Or wondering how much of the show’s budget was spent on her silk pyjama wardrobe (as opposed to say, hairstyling for Levy).
It’s the kind of show where, if you can let go of trying to care about anything, you can enjoy watching Anne shoot arrows at Lisa’s head in her penthouse. Or cackle at the depiction of the gay (strip) club, which is so laughably fake that it automatically confirms that no one on the production team has ever set foot in an actual gay club. Or you can be like me and daydream about which development is more likely by the series finale: that Anne will throw Lisa off her balcony or that the two women will at some point furiously make out (both options seem incredibly plausible).
One final bonus: since the series is on Netflix, the characters are swear freely and regularly. Plus, someone (a true queer ally) seemingly wrote an iron-clad clause into each male actor’s contract that they are required to show their bare ass. Alas the Netflix connection also means that each episode clocks in at an egregiously long 50-55 minutes, but this is really only problematic if you have a social life and don’t consider yourself a connoisseur of high trash.
In short, all of this is to say that if you find yourself in need of some mindless escapism, embrace your inner garbage raccoon and dive into What/If.
All 10 episodes of What/If are now available on Netflix.