[Editor’s Note: The following review contains mild spoilers for “What/If” Season 1, in that any details about the twist-heavy plot are technically spoilers.]
It actually takes a lot of hard, focused work to make a TV show so bad it’s good. Think of “Barry.” The excellent HBO comedy is only getting better, but Bill Hader is a great (Emmy-winning) actor being asked to portray a bad one. Sure, the “SNL” veteran knows what a bad actor looks like — he was, after all, still part of the cast when Gerard Butler hosted — but he also knows what makes bad acting entertaining. “Barry” is filled with awful performances used toward brilliant comedy, whether it’s the tone deaf choices of his acting class or Barry trying to act (aka lie) in his day-to-day life.
Now, instead of just one element of the show being bad, imagine an entire series built from that same qualitative mentality. Putting all those pieces together is difficult, let alone finding a story to support them, but “What / If” does exactly that. Mike Kelley’s soapy, silly, melodramatic, twist-driven thriller is at no times not entertaining. The 10-episode first season tosses one loony development in after another, piling up the drama as fast as it piles up the fun. Netflix’s anthology is so bad it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and yet still smart enough to induce gasps. It’s Michelin-star trash, and you won’t be able to stop binging.
It’s also a remake of “Gypsy.” Remember “Gypsy,” the Naomi Watts-led 2017 thriller that, despite many compelling components, was mind-bogglingly boring? So many elements of “What / If” line up with one of Netflix’s most disappointing failures, I wouldn’t be surprised if the streaming giant’s famous algorithm helped Kelley create a bigger, better, stronger reboot. For one, both series focus on a mysterious, well-off-but-working blonde who’s played by an acclaimed movie star. In “What / If,” that actor is Renée Zellweger and her character is Anne Montgomery, a woman of extreme wealth who sets her sights on Lisa (Jane Levy), a young, edgy brunette — again, just like “Gypsy.”
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Only this time, their attraction is all work and zero play. Lisa is a scientist on the edge of a breakthrough that would save millions of kids’ lives. She just needs the funding to execute her trials and bring her technique to market. After striking out with other, more conservative venture capitalists, Lisa gets an unexpected invitation from Anne. Only, Anne doesn’t want a pitch — she wants a night alone with Lisa’s husband, Sean (Blake Jenner), the young, tall, burly former major league baseball star-turned-paramedic-turned-firefighter.
Though his physical attributes are certainly a bonus, they’re also a smokescreen. Anne is a devious mastermind who’s made millions based on her belief that human attachment is a weakness; she argues the only way Lisa’s business can succeed is if she’s willing to be 100 percent focused on work, at the expense of her husband. To prove it, she has to leave Anne and Sean alone for an entire night. She’ll get the funding she needs, but Lisa can never ask Sean what happened when he was with Anne.
Sound familiar? It should, and no, not because of “Gypsy” (though I stand by the comparison). Kelley’s first season is inspired by “Indecent Proposal,” with a welcome gender switch (Zellweger steps in for Robert Redford, Jenner for Demi Moore), and he doesn’t stop at the premise. “What / If” incorporates as many of ’80s and ’90s neo-noir touches as possible, from the duplicitous secrets cooked into every character to near-constant sexual undertones (and overtones) scoring each scene.
Moreover, Kelley clearly loves the genre: Striking colors pop like fireworks, bathing the night in blue light. Anne sits atop a choppy SF skyscraper (that appears to have inspired the show’s title design) and clips her massive bonsai tree with the ferocity of a Bond villain. Framings tilt off their axis as characters’ paranoia and confusion deepens, and Phillip Noyce even directs the first two episodes, a veteran of ’90s thrillers like “Sliver” and “The Saint.”
All these touches support substantial twists that just keep coming. Kelley doesn’t slow down after the pilot, and he manages to sustain the suspense over 10 hours of well-staged melodrama. “What / If” makes the most of what appears to be a considerable budget, choosing posh, otherworldly locations and crafting stages to match. There are helicopter flights to remote destinations, an open house staged like “Sleep No More,” and even a surprise night where Anne slums it in a Kentucky motel. The locales add a delicious punch to the narrative’s drama, while also helping episodes stand out among all the switcheroos.
Finally, there are two last factors critical to keeping this all chugging along: the ending and the acting. Without spoiling anything, rest assured the end of “What / If” does not disappoint. Though not the go-for-broke barnburner some may hope to see, Kelley delivers a satisfying, and satisfyingly absurd, close to the layers and layers of insanity. As for the actors, well, no one is Hader-level great at being bad. Levy and Jenner are as bland as they need to be, allowing viewers to project whatever they need onto the protagonists. Some may mock their naive puppy love while others will buy into the choices they make for their partners, but you’ll have a grand time watching them get put through the wringer no matter how much you love or love to hate the couple.
Zellweger, meanwhile, is the only thespian asked to emote with affecting range. She doesn’t quite reach the camp heights of her genre’s best predecessors (like Sharon Stone and Glenn Close), but the Oscar-winner comes close. Zellweger proves excellent at exposing Anne’s few, fleeting vulnerabilities; acknowledging an effective attack with a downward flick of her eyes so she can save her big blow-ups for when they really matter later on. Watching her cry, when it finally comes, is a well-earned and utterly demented experience.
If this is what Kelley is capable of with just one season, one can only imagine what this proof-of-concept will draw for future seasons. The story will start over should Netflix pick up another set of episodes, and new stars can chew the magnificent new scenery. Is “What / If” as good as “Barry”? Of course not. If anything, it’s the inverse on every level — but that’s almost as hard to pull off, and fittingly almost as enjoyable, too. Bring on Season 2.
“What/If” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.