Pop Culturing: Netflix's 'What/If' is a Bizarre Soap that Kicks Off the Renéeaissance

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Friday May 24, 2019

Renée Zellweger in "What/If."
Renée Zellweger in "What/If."  (Source:Adam Rose/Netflix)

A-list movie talent appearing on the small screen is now commonplace in this era of TV. From Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in "Big Little Lies" (not to mention Meryl Streep on the upcoming second season) to Naomi Watts in the short-lived Netflix mystery "Gypsy" and Julia Roberts in Amazon's conspiracy thriller "Homecoming," stars who perhaps would once turn down television projects not that long ago are now signing up to appear in some of the buzziest series today.

Enter Renée Zellweger, who is at the center of Netflix's very strange new anthology neo-noir "What/If," which debuts on the streaming service Friday. In 2019, no one bats an eye when it's announced that the Oscar winner is starring in a Netflix show. Created by Mike Kelley (perhaps best known for ABC's "Revenge") "What/If" feels like something of a throwback network mystery albeit with swearing and nudity (there are a lot of butts here). It's a broad, overwritten thriller that one would expect to thrive for 15 seasons on Fox. But there's something charming with "What/If" or, if not charming, definitely addicting. The show knows what it is, reveling in its over-the-top OMG moments and general camp, but sometimes all that wink-wink-nudge-nudge knowing is a bit much even for the most enthusiastic of viewers. What really sells the show is Zellweger's intense presence and her beguiling performance.

In "What/If," Zellweger plays Anne Montgomery, a venture capitalist and investor of sorts who is world-famous for supporting women in business. Even so, she's more notorious for being a cutthroat businesswoman; cunning and ruthless. Through fate, luck or a something more sinister, she connects with Lisa (Jane Levy), a young and earnest woman passionate about her upstart Emigen, a health company that does something that will revolutionize the healthcare industry and pharmaceuticals (the show does a terrible job at explaining what Emigen actually does). But, as Anne says early on in "What/If," everything comes with a cost: Anne will fund Lisa's startup, handing over $80 million, if she allows her hunky husband Sean (Blake Jenner) to spend one night with Anne.

Blake Jenner and Jane Levy in Netflix's "What/If." Photo credit: Adam Rose/Netflix

Of course, this setup is a nod to the 1993 drama "Indecent Proposal." In the promo ads for "What/If," Zellweger is seen wearing a sexy white dress, crossing her legs, recalling the iconic Sharon Stone scene from the classic 1992 erotic thriller "Basic Instinct." During a negotiation scene between Anne, Lisa and Sean, things get meta.

"This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad '90s movie," Lisa says.

"I thought that film was quite decent," Anne quickly fires back.

Kelley knows what kind of show he's making and the cast is in on it but most importantly Zellweger is eating up every moment she's on screen. Part of the fun of "What/If" is watching Zellweger in a role unlike she's done before; completely vile and self-interested. Through the five episodes Netflix provided of the 10-episode season, it is unclear what Anne's motives actually are when she slowly and methodically tortures and toys with Lisa and Sean. But Zellweger enjoys every moment she's on screen, making the best of her cliched and over-written dialogue while giving the dirtiest of looks.

Her role in "What/If" is the kick off to Zellweger's big 2019 — later this year, she'll star as Hollywood icon Judy Garland in a biopic set during the last year of her life. Of course, that'll be a completely different from the twisted Anne Montgomery but her part in "What/If" is a good reminder to audiences — who haven't seen much of Zellweger over the last few years — that she's an actor with a lot of range. "What/If" doesn't always work — in fact it rarely works — but Zellweger carries the show on her shoulders, keeping you invested and hypnotizes you into clicking "Watch Next Episode" when the Netflix prompt appears.

Juan Castano, left, and John Clarence Stewart, right in "What/If." Photo credit: Erik Voake/Netflix

Zellweger is such a shining star that it makes the rest of the characters who populate "What/If" seem a lot less interesting. Outside of Lisa and Sean, there are their friends, high school sweethearts Todd (Keith Powers) and Angela (Samantha Ware). Todd and Sean are work together as EMTs and later go into a firefighting program where it's slowly revealed that Sean was a former MLB pitcher but his career was halted due to a violent incident. Meanwhile, Angela, a nurse, is having an affair with her boss, Dr. Ian Harris (Dave Annable) but the drama here feels like it belongs to a different soap. There's also Lisa's brother Marcos (Juan Castano), a human rights lawyer, and his partner Lionel (John Clarence Stewart), a real estate agent, who spice up their relationship by getting involved with a go-go dancer who works at a local gay club. Over the first few episodes, it's not really clear how the situation will play out (will they become a thriving throuple or will adding a third to a steady and healthy relationship sabotage things?) But, like Angela and Todd's issues, Marcos and Lionel's story feels tacked on and inconsequential to the mysterious plans Anne has for Lisa and Sean.

"What/If" may figure itself out in the back half of its first season but at its best, it's escapist easy-to-watch TV. If you have 45 minutes to kill, there are worse things to do than watch Zellweger chew up some scenery. At its best, the show is a captivating soap opera that can quickly sour but its center star keeps the show from becoming a train wreck. At its, worst "What/If" will snap you out of the moment with a terrible line read and you'll question what the hell you're watching.


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