Sometimes bad television happens to good actors. There’s no other way to rationalize what’s happening in What/If, a show in which Renée Zellweger is biting off chunks of scenery, shredding them with her dainty white teeth, and digesting them on camera while everyone else sits limply in her shadow. It’s not fair, really. There’s Zellweger—one Oscar, three Golden Globes, and three SAG Awards to her name—reaching the highest echelons of glorious diva-dom in her portrayal of Anne Montgomery, a superstar venture capitalist/amateur archer/revenge-plot architect. Then there’s the rest of the cast, drably saying their lines out loud with all the effervescence of powdered whey.
What/If, whose 10 episodes arrive on Netflix Friday, is a perplexing thing to think about, or to try to synopsize. In its heart it’s an ABC drama from a decade ago, splashy and soapy and steeped in pathetic fallacy. (Mike Kelley, who created What/If, was last seen on TV spearheading the 2011 ABC show Revenge, a loose, Hamptons-set update of The Count of Monte Cristo.) Jane Levy plays Lisa, the head of a struggling start-up that wants to revolutionize “molecular sequencing” in drug protocols for cancer patients. Blake Jenner is Sean, Lisa’s inanimate lunk of a husband, a former baseball player with secrets. Sean is tending bar one rainy evening when Anne Montgomery makes him an offer he can’t refuse: If he spends the night with her, she’ll fully fund Lisa’s company.
Here is where What/If really gets hoisted by its own petard. When you’ve had the opportunity to see Zellweger in full sexy speculator mode, speaking entirely in aphorisms, undulating across the room with all the hip-sway of Jessica Rabbit, and shooting literal arrows at her antagonists, everything else seems awfully dull. (“Left of center,” Anne’s stoic butler/bodyguard/archery instructor tells her. “Those are three words no one’s ever used to describe me,” Anne purrs in response.) Besides the ongoing saga of Lisa and Sean, there’s a watered-down Grey’s Anatomy imitation featuring a married doctor (played by Samantha Marie Ware) sleeping with her chief of surgery (Dave Annable), and holding hearts—literal and metaphorical—in her hands. Even the sexier story lines, liberated by Netflix’s lack of advertisers and scored to a corny Red Shoe Diaries soundtrack of yesteryear, radiate redundancy. This is Anne Montgomery’s show. Why bother pretending anything else can compete?
But there’s also the question of whether What/If is supposed to be this bad—whether it could actually be a striking work of postmodernism that deconstructs the network-TV drama into its component elements and then rebuilds it as a simulacrum whose easy artificiality both entrances and appalls. (It’s possible I’m giving Kelley too much credit.) The show has been pitched as a modern morality play, an anthology series in which every season considers a different hypothetical question. In an interview with Forbes, Kelley explained that he wanted to consider the murky morality of modern American life, and the ways in which people justify gratifying their desires. In the opening scene of What/If, Montgomery espouses her rules for success in business via a best-selling self-help book she’s dictating into an audio recorder, sniffing at “the uninvited position of lesser people’s moral agendas,” and affirming that “true greatness only comes to those willing to pursue it at any cost.”
Which is … a fascinating premise for a limited series to explore! But it’s also not at all, at least from the first five episodes made available for review, something What/If concerns itself with. Rather, the show is a Silicon Valley soap opera in which the characters have buried secrets emerging to bite them on their perfectly sculpted behinds. Moral dilemmas abound, both in plotlines and as features of a drinking game devised by a realtor named Lionel (John Clarence Stewart). Can it ever be acceptable to cheat? Sacrifice friends for success? Take money from bad people to do good things? What/If bats these ideas around like Ping-Pong balls to justify its premise, but it yawns at rather than considers them.
Moreover, Zellweger’s Anne is the only person who’s having any fun, which rather undermines the idea that morality is more than a mug’s game. When she’s not losing fencing bouts on purpose or snipping branches off bonsai trees for dramatic effect (or, in one scene, screaming into a stuffed tiger), she’s tossing her head into the distance and narrowing her eyes at anyone unwise enough to enter her light. It’s hard to imagine another actor carrying off Anne’s most theatrical outbursts (“Restraint is a virtue I no longer wish to embrace”) without crossing over into pantomime-dame territory, but Zellweger has an enduring girlishness that softens Anne’s absurd edges. On-screen, she’s as magnetic to watch as she ever was, and so good at selling such awful lines that it makes everyone else’s deficiencies more obvious. (If you’re skeptical about how bad the writing might actually be, please note that this is a show in which one character takes another out for dim sum and then says, “Dim sum serious thoughts going on behind those pretty eyes.”)
Whatever reasons Zellweger had for wanting to take this role (and you can only hope there were several hundreds of thousands of them), she transforms What/If single-handedly. Without her, it might have been a mere aberration—anachronistic, clunky, and immediately forgotten. With her, it’s a much more interesting beast, a show that allows an Oscar-winning actor to expose the story’s flaws and elevate it as a curiosity all at the same time. What/If also points to a certain cynicism on the part of Netflix, which disrupted the network-TV model only to stoke nostalgia for it a few years later. Perhaps that’s an ethical knot Season 2 can try to unravel.