“What/If,” Netflix’s new anthology series, tells you what it is from its first moments, as Renée Zellweger delivers an Ayn Rand-ian screed about rejecting social mores. Zellweger builds to a snarl as she decries “lesser people’s moral agendas,” all while puttering through a lavish apartment, pausing to trim a bonsai tree. She’s speaking to no one, or to her public — her declamations, we see in short order, end up published as a manifesto. She’s also underlining the story’s themes for the audience — literally, as she grabs a pen at monologue’s end to scrawl and draw a line under the words “at any cost.”
This is, then, the sort of show that explains exactly what its ideas are before it gets started — and that does so through a juicily overwritten rant delivered by an Oscar-winning actress as she practices horticulture. “What/If” occupies a curious place on Netflix, a streaming service built on programming appealing to slivers of its audience. The niche “What/If” serves is people nostalgic for the non-niche: Big-tent, unsubtle soap storytelling. Creator Mike Kelley previously made ABC’s “Revenge,” and similarly, this is a program whose broadness seems designed for broadcast. On Netflix, its sense of giddy, unashamed fun buoys it even as the seams show.
Zellweger plays Anne Montgomery, a corporate thought leader famous for urging the public, especially women, to be relentless in pursuit of what they desire. Anne meets her seeming opposite, the earnest, altruistic and unsuccessful health start-up founder Lisa (Jane Levy), and takes the opportunity to strike a deal. She offers Lisa $80 million, contingent on Anne getting one night alone with Lisa’s husband, Sean (played by Blake Jenner as an amiably blank hunk born to be the object, not the subject, of his own story).
That this is but a modern spin on the 1993 Robert Redford film “Indecent Proposal” — with concessions to our era made in the gender reverse and the pumped-up paycheck — is so obvious that the show itself must comment on it. “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad ’90s movie,” Lisa declares. “I thought that film was quite decent,” Anne replies in a clunky joke that will determine whether or not the viewer vibrates on “What/If’s” frequency. But while “Indecent Proposal” painted Redford’s ultra-capitalist as a benevolent figure simply looking for love, Anne is interested in sex only as a demonstration of power. The structure of the deal — to be voided if Sean and Lisa ever discuss what happened on Anne’s big night — is designed to prise their relationship apart, and the nature of Anne’s investment ensures her future and Lisa’s will be intertwined. Perhaps the most 2019 aspect of this story is that Sean and Lisa never seriously consider turning down the money.
A titan who takes glee in destroying the lives of those unlucky enough to cross her path is not a natural casting for Zellweger, whose recent absence from the screen has deprived audiences of a preternaturally charming performer. From “Chicago” and the “Bridget Jones” films to “Jerry Maguire,” Zellweger’s great gift is depicting the process of overcoming insecurities, which makes her an awkward fit for a character who appears to have been born without any. Further, her status as a beloved star returning to work would seem to present opportunities to work on shows with loftier aims; for all the noise “What/If” makes about investigating the consequences of decisions, its appeal lies in watching Zellweger fetching a massive golden keychain from a glass vault while ordering a subordinate to get her car ready for a drive. (Let the debate over what is or is not camp end here: Renée Zellweger spitting “Bring the car around” is camp.) Her line readings always land a bit to the left of where an actress more suited to playing the boss might place them — and that makes her endlessly watchable.
Zellweger so consumes her moments on screen — fueled, not stymied, by having been a bit miscast — that she overwhelms her scene partners and the show’s other storylines. Subplots about infidelity affecting others in Lisa’s circle are sucked into the eddy of skewed charisma at the show’s center. Little of “What/If” truly works: Lisa and Sean are such easy prey that they grow unsympathetic, and the story defaults to outrageousness too early and too often. And yet its episodes, forty-five minutes of old-school soap oozing out of glossily high-toned packaging, leave a simpatico viewer satisfied. A “What/If” that was 10% better would be immeasurably worse; as it stands, it’s a captivating bit of cheese, anchored by a star making the most of a very strange moment.
“What/If.” Netflix (10 episodes, four reviewed); May 24.
Executive producers: Mike Kelley, Melissa Loy, Alex Gartner, Charles Roven, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Cast: Renée Zellweger, Jane Levy, Blake Jenner, Samantha Ware, Keith Powers, Daniella Pineda, Juan Castano, John Clarence Stewart, Dave Annable, Louis Herthum