Roush Review: 'What/If' May Be More Guilty Than Pleasure
“This whole idea was ripped out of a bad ’90s movie,” Lisa (Suburgatory's Jane Levy) warns her hollow hunk of a hubby, Sean (Glee's Blake Jenner), of the indecent proposal they’ve just been asked to consider.
Whatever the source, Netflix redefines the TV guilty pleasure in its glossy and preposterous new series What/If, which transcends junk-food TV and moves into the realm of trans-fat TV. This perverse concoction from the creator of Revenge is definitely bad for you, but good luck resisting it should this be your preferred brand of nonsense.
A glammed-up Renée Zellweger has a ball slinking through this steamy and tawdry melodrama. As Anne Montgomery, a Cruella of a venture capitalist, her eyes flash with malice born of the usual repressed tragedy when she offers to invest in earnest Lisa’s struggling biotech startup — albeit at a cost.
We first glimpse Anne on one of many dark and stormy nights in San Francisco, as she mulls over her latest manifesto in an egregiously overwritten voice-over monologue that goes on longer than some Game of Thrones battles. Her ultimate conclusion: "Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without sacrifice."
Enter Lisa and Sean, who are drawn into Anne's seductive web by financial necessity and, it would seem, a hidden agenda on their manipulative benefactor's part. Besides, as Anne says of the actual Indecent Proposal, "I thought that film was quite decent." Which should set off some serious red flags right there. But since What/If is one of those shows where every plot twist depends on someone making decisions they'll come to regret later, Lisa abandons her marital principles and offers up her adorably loyal ex-baseball player husband (who harbors obvious rage issues) for the sake of her company.
What transpires on Anne’s night alone with Sean is a compelling mystery, but the series, typically for Netflix, sadistically drags things out with too many turgid soapy subplots. One involving Lisa's gay brother engaging in a ménage-a-trois that could imperil his own relationship is at least fresh (and notably graphic), but an infidelity storyline for Lisa and Sean's dull married BFFs — she's an aspiring surgeon at the mercy of a lecherous chief — feels like something that would be rejected by the Grey's Anatomy writers' room.
Even if you're tempted to say “whatev” whenever things become overripe or half-baked, which is often, What/If has a way of pulling you in, thanks mostly to the spectacle of an Oscar winner slumming so merrily. "Restraint is a virtue I no longer wish to embrace," Anne declares after fencing (literally) with a rival investor.
Restraint has no place in What/If, and since Netflix only made half of the season available for review, I admit I'll be damned if I'll restrain myself from finishing this thing first chance I get. (Actually, I'll probably be damned if I do.)
What/If, Series Premiere, Friday, May 24, Netflix