“What/If” begins with a monologue. To whom is this mysterious, sharp-edged blonde speaking, you might wonder, as she opines about fate and self-actualization, morality and power, risk and reward. She stares out an elegant floor-to-ceiling window, wanders past a huge ring of gold keys ensconced in a glowing glass display case, pauses to absently snip a bonsai tree, her speech heating up all the time. And you sit there, waiting for the reveal: A dead body in a chair by the fireplace. Or a man held hostage, gagged and bound. Or a smiling co-conspirator. When the reveal comes, it’s comically underwhelming. She has an audience of one, alright, but it’s just her and a voice recorder; she’s improvising a chapter of her latest book, the title of which she conveniently scribbles on a piece of luxe stationery right as her menacing treatise reaches its climax. It’s underlined for emphasis: “At. Any. Cost.”
That monologue is a microcosm of the first season of “What/If,” the new Netflix anthology series from “Revenge” creator Mike Kelley (premiering with 10 episodes on Friday). It's over-the-top and oddly anticlimactic in one. "What/If" plays at teasing out big philosophical and moral questions, but instead just drops thematically appropriate words at random like a college poetry student checking off all the requirements in a writing prompt. Just when you start to get bored, it tosses in something like that bonsai tree, ridiculous and arch. And above all, that monologue, like the series, benefits from the presence of Renee Zellweger, vamping her way through one of those “strong female leads” that feels as though it was written for a man before someone went in and changed all the pronouns, and somehow making it sing. When Zellweger’s not on screen, “What/If” is a mostly empty, broad strokes neo-noir soap, frothy and forgettable. When she appears, it’s still all of those things—but dear lord, please pass the popcorn.
Zellweger plays Anne Montgomery, a mysterious venture capitalist and financial guru—think Sheryl Sandberg meets Suze Orman, if those two people moved and spoke like a femme fatale from American noir but theorized like Ayn Rand. Circumstantially, that’s the portrait, but dramatically, she owes more to Robert Redford’s John Gage from "Indecent Proposal," a major influence on this first season (though here, love seems to play no part of the equation). For reasons left intentionally unclear, she sets her financial sights on Lisa Donovan (Jane Levy, playing a protagonist to whom things simply happen), who runs a flailing but innovative medical company called Emigen, which aims to help people with curable but serious illnesses for whom traditional treatments have proven ineffective. The conditions for Anne’s swooping in and saving the day: A night with Lisa’s husband Sean (Blake Jenner), and a clause in the contract prohibiting the couple from ever discussing what happens in the course of that night.
From a storytelling perspective, the most interesting aspect of “What/If” is that last bit: The idea that the events of the evening matter less than the couple’s inability to discuss them. For a while, that remains true, and Kelley and company find ways to echo that idea in the subplots centered on the many people in Lisa and Sean’s lives (a brother struggling with his identity as a queer man and his patient partner, a woman struggling with a workplace affair and her oblivious husband, two of Lisa’s colleagues who become independently wary of Anne’s machinations). But “What/If” comes apart the moment you start to really consider the ideas, and the series is much more interested in plot (and, rightly, in Zellweger holding court) than it is in character or theme. Instead of letting what’s unsaid fester and drive the couple apart, it simply tells us that the marriage is now in jeopardy, and everybody broods.
If you, the hypothetical viewer, can enjoy a show purely for the twists, slow-motion sex scenes, and chaotic personal lives of a group of good-looking young people, look no further. “What/If” feels like a throwback nighttime soap, steeped in melodrama and willing to toss logic (and character) out the window when narratively expedient, but not so risky that anyone need feel terribly scandalized. The dialogue, give or take an Anne monologue or two, moves with the as subtlety of a spork; the characters dump exposition, helpfully explain their own inner workings, nail home the themes, and do so without anything resembling poetry. It’s designed to be as user-friendly as possible. Get up and make a sandwich, and as long as you listen with even half an ear, you won’t miss a damn thing.
In many ways, it seems more suited to a network than Netflix. Everyone’s pretty and everything’s manicured and gorgeous; even the supposedly seedy bars into which our characters sometimes venture are warmly lit and fetchingly outfitted. When the show ventures into territory that seems genuinely weird—the characters improvise holiday scenes in a house for sale, while prospective buyers wander the halls in masks to leer at them, for example—it nearly always skitters backwards, as if reluctant to actually do the thing that’s scripted. It makes for an oddly tentative, but pleasantly and inoffensively twisty, viewing experience. Call it “lurid-lite.”
The exception proves the rule. When Zellweger steps up, it stops being “Desperate Tech Titans” and enters Michael Mann territory, albeit with a bit of wry self-awareness and some irresistible preening. Zellweger knows exactly what show she’s on. It’s as though she’s picturing the drag queens who’ll one day wear her costumes and lip-sync her dialogue in her head, and plays just enough to give them inspiration, but not so much that they can’t go above and beyond. Yet it never becomes pastiche; like Anne Hathaway in the similarly silly (but infinitely weirder and more daring) "Serenity," Zellweger uses the archetype without ever succumbing to it entirely. And then the series moves away, however briefly, from the what of her actions in favor of the why, “What/If” becomes something much more compelling: a vehicle for an accomplished performer to try a new genre on for size, teasing out untold depths from a tissue-thin script as only the best can.
Five episodes watched for review.