There's something glorious — a gift, really — when a television series is ridiculously bad within minutes (or, in the case of Netflix's new drama What/If, within seconds). That creates a great guessing game for already bored critics: How quickly can this series extricate itself from its terrible start and nudge toward redemption? Or, is it possible this show will continue its creative free fall?
The downside of this game? You're just wasting time, either way. And that's a real sin in the Platinum Age of Television.
What/If basically rips off Indecent Proposal and then admits to doing so, as if that's a clever thing. The series stars a miscast Renée Zellweger as Anne Montgomery, a venture capitalist ("born of jackals") who has a very familiar proposal for earnest Lisa Donovan (a misused Jane Levy), whose biotech company badly needs money to save children. Lisa, of course, has leveraged everything from her family and friends to fund the startup, making her vulnerable to, say, a powerful woman of a certain age who wants to devour her husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), the former baseball prodigy who flamed out and is now a good-hearted paramedic.
It's a not great idea, and it's executed clumsily, which, as mentioned, takes mere seconds to deduce. But nobody stops at the one-minute mark, so if you choose to watch What/If, you'll dive deeper to see if it gets better. There's probably no need to add a spoiler alert here: It doesn't.
Lisa and Sean are deeply in love. They even have an adorable dog who gets an inordinate amount of cutaway close-ups in the pilot, while Sean is trying to sing a Backstreet Boys song to Lisa while stripping (don’t ask). Anyway, that's a thing that happens early on, and it's a sign you should heed. Anyway, nothing can tear these two apart.
Except Anne, who offers $80 million in funding just as Lisa's company is about to go under. It's not a no-strings-attached kind of deal, as you might have guessed, but even for a devoted, saintly TV couple like Lisa and Sean, $80 million for the husband to sleep with someone who's essentially an insanely rich soccer mom isn't a proposition with doom and gloom all over it. Or maybe that's just the cynicism speaking.
When Lisa (and, to be emphatically clear, Levy deserves better than this) scoffs at the initial offer from Anne, she tells her husband: "This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad '90s movie." So at least it's addressed. And then Anne says, "I thought that film was quite decent," which is a thing that passes for clever in What/If.
The couple reluctantly accept the deal and then immediately regret it and worry over what trouble might befall them. That's not a spoiler, either. Also, just to be clear here: If you're actually thinking about watching this mess, you're too far out of your mind to worry about spoilers.
The first problem with What/If is that it's just a bad network series that's on Netflix, a thing that Netflix does more often than you might imagine, mostly because its brand is volume and there are plenty of people who would watch a silly and soapy drama like this. As much as we all might wish that Netflix would aspire to better shows, more original shows, shows that don't feel like they were poached off ABC's schedule, sometimes the streamer fails us.
What/If was created and written by Mike Kelley (Revenge). The first two episodes (it was too painful to go further) were directed by Phillip Noyce, whose features include Dead Calm, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American). They are larded with bad writing, dubious editing choices and the kind of weightless fluff that props up most network soap operas. You'll recognize it as the gooey ease of it saturates your body.
In the pilot, beyond the cute-dog close-ups and Backstreet Boys references, there are bad sex scenes and J.Lo references and, worst of all, the desecration of San Francisco by the CGI insertion of a tacky high-rise on the Embarcadero. Oh, and lots of lightning, striking dramatically to emphasize certain points.
But there's more. Like Zellweger shooting arrows — real arrows — dramatically and threateningly in her penthouse condo. Or being asked to essentially mimic Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, all vamp and legs and oozing sexuality, as if Kelley never saw her in Bridget Jones. Or maybe a vastly different Zellweger in 2019 wants to play the aging man-eater with a vindictive streak. After all, men get this kind of role all the time (oftentimes in allegedly serious dramas where the age-gap factor isn't even fueled by money, a far worse offense). But here she is, all slit dresses and breathy proclamations over drinks, using power and pumps to get what she wants. You can float away on your own eye-rolls, if the rising soap bubbles don't get you first.
"The world is a horrible place," one character says. "But every morning Anne Montgomery wakes up and eats it for breakfast."
Well, OK then.
There are twists to come, assuredly, but if you're bored or distracted along the way, the series tosses in an African American couple: Todd (Keith Powers), Sean's paramedic partner who adores his doctor wife, Angela (Samantha Marie Ware), who in turn is sleeping with the dickhead chief of surgery (Dave Annable). As What/If world-builds and checks off boxes, there's also a lovely gay couple, Marcos (Juan Castano) and Lionel (John Clarence Stewart).
Maybe you've been thinking lately, "If Netflix would only make an ABC soap opera that's dumb and predictable, I'd be so happy." Or maybe you'll stumble on this series and ask yourself, "What was Netflix thinking?" Either way, congratulations — you allowed me to create an if/what joke so I didn't have to think for another second about What/If.
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Jane Levy, Blake Jenner, Dave Annable, Samantha Marie Ware, Keith Powers, John Clarence Stewart, Juan Castano, Louis Herthum
Creator-writer: Mike Kelley
Director: Phillip Noyce
Premieres Friday, May 24 (Netflix)