“This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad 90s movie,” declares Lisa (Jane Levy) in Netflix’s new series, What/If, an erotic thriller that is, indeed, ripped right out of a bad 90s movie. “Actually, I thought that film was decent,” comes the reply from Anne (Renée Zellweger). That exchange tells you everything you need to know about this absurd, overcooked series. Yes, it’s ripped off from a bad 90s movie. Yes, it knows it. And yes, if you liked Indecent Proposal, as the Netflix algorithm says, you’ll probably like this.
Created by Mike Kelley, the series follows a trio of characters, promising to examine the consequences of the choices we make (as opposed to all other TV shows, where things just happen randomly and nobody does anything). But what it actually delivers is a low-rent story of steamy seduction, melodramatic romance, pontification about marital fidelity and occasional rides in a helicopter, because helicopters. Levy plays Lisa, a wide-eyed, straight-arrowed scientist. You can tell because she’s trying to fight cancer with some groundbreaking genetic research, after a personal loss when younger. Her husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), is a would-be fireman. You can tell because he takes his shirt off within the first 30 minutes. Their marriage is pushed to its limit by Anne (Zellwegger), a venture capitalist who promises to fund Lisa’s almost-bankrupt company with $80 million. The condition? Sean has to spend the night with her – and, thanks to an NDA clause, can’t ever tell Lisa what they did.
Only a fool would ever sign such an agreement, but sign they do, and so the stage is set for a growing void of doubt between wife and husband, prised open at every opportunity by the manipulative Anne. If nothing happened, why is Sean disappearing at night? Who’s cashing that dodgy cheque? What’s up with that clandestine lunch date?
There’s potential for something fun in the cat-and-mouse shenanigans, but the whole thing is played with the straightest of straight faces, and with the unsexiest of atmospheres, which renders most of it dull and uninvolving – a surprising shame, given the playful titles for each episode (What Now, What Happened, What Drama, and, later, WTF). Fortunately, nobody’s given that direction to Renée Zellweger, who relishes her first regular TV series role, hamming it up for all she’s worth as the enigmatic smart and ruthless businesswoman who likes to make other people feel weak but also gives them occasional rides in a helicopter, because helicopters. She delivers every line of dialogue with a deliciously camp quality, but everyone else sadly treats the premise like it’s high art, and the script, despite its initial attempts to appear self-aware, doesn’t do anywhere near enough to justify it.
A subplot involving a friend having an affair feels like something out of a different show, but actually, only confirms the truth: that this portentously framed social thriller is simply a soap opera with added theatrics. For a show about decisions and consequences, there’s also very little character logic to drive things along. There’s a hint of an emerging backstory that might explain Anne’s behaviour, as we get some flashbacks to her childhood, but the show is more interested in her writing down “AT ANY COST” in large letters on a piece of paper, seemingly just for her own reference. One scene sees her look out of a window while a thunderstorm rages outside, for no apparent reason. Another sees Sean punch a wall, for no apparent reason. And yet, the pacing and carefully placed cliffhangers ensure that you’ll still click through several episodes anyway, for no apparent reason. It’s trash of the lowest order, like watching a fake TV show inside an episode of Black Mirror, if an AI had only been allowed to learn by reading EL James novels. What happens when acceptable people do unacceptable things? In so many ways, What/If is your answer. Expect to finish bingeing it within a weekend.
What/If is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.