In 1981, primetime soap opera Falcon Crest made headlines when it cast legendary Hollywood actress Lana Turner as the mysterious Jacqueline Perrault. At the time, soaps were fertile ground for older actresses to find renewed artistic and commercial success after Hollywood cynically dismissed them. What made these ventures so successful, from Joan Collins and Diahann Carroll on Dynasty to Turner and Oscar winner Jane Wyman on Falcon Crest, was the opportunity to see powerfully talented women sink their teeth into deliciously complex roles. In all of Hollywood’s self-seriousness, soaps were a creative reprieve where, amidst the wedding massacres and amnesia and secret affairs, these actresses could let loose and chew up all of the elegant, expensive scenery they wanted.
What/If, the new anthology series from Netflix, is the inartful extension of that tradition. At the center of this ten-episode romp from Mike Kelley (creator of hit ABC series Revenge) is Renée Zellweger’s Anne Montgomery, a San Francisco financier who specializes in big-game tech investments and psychological warfare. She’s a character of cutting ruthlessness, with the seemingly endless resources and indefatigability to lay waste to whomever she sets her sights on. The hapless targets of her treachery this time are Lisa Donovan (Jane Levy), the creator of a biotech startup on the verge of financial collapse, and Sean (Blake Jenner), her endlessly positive EMT husband. Anne encounters the struggling couple one particularly vulnerable night and offers to invest in the startup, if she can spend the night with Sean. The couple predictably balk at the idea, and then predictably decide the offer is too tempting to resist and that their love and trust can withstand anything. By the first episode, they agree to Anne’s devilish terms.
If What/If’s premise sounds like a gender swap of 1993’s Indecent Proposal, that’s because it is (the Donovans even acknowledge as much). The problem is that the Robert Redford-Demi Moore original was only two hours long, while What/If has an additional eight to fill. With the key source of narrative tension dispatched early on, the series relies on soapy twists and splashy displays of wealth and sex to keep us interested or, better yet, distracted. It seldom works. The show looks expensive and definitely earns its TV-MA rating, but all the high gloss and nudity can’t mask the show’s glaring issues, like its sub-standard dialogue and indecipherable point of existence. What/If has no clue what it wants to be, or even how to get there if it had a clue. As a meditation on power and corruptibility, its takeaways are superficial and reductive, and as mindless and disposable trash, it misses the opportunity to be in on the joke. The failures hinge on the show’s banal characters not named Anne Montgomery, that barely have enough unique traits between them to make caring worth the effort. On their own, Lisa and Sean Donovan are simply stilted and bland, and the attempts to make them complex through tragic backstories are transparent and hollow. When up against Anne, the couple are downright pathetic, and the show’s insistence that they aren’t laughably out of their depth is a source of unintentional hilarity. The supporting characters don’t fare any better: side plots about adultery, workplace sexual harassment, polyamory, immigration, and Catholic guilt might’ve worked if the players were just a slice more interesting.
When What/If does work, it’s squarely because of Anne Montgomery and her portrayer Renée Zellweger. The Oscar winning actress goes all in with the devious character, crafting an acidic, indomitable presence that is utterly watchable. Even with the most ridiculous scenes and the most hideous lines, Zellweger captivates and commands, with a condescending twinkle in her eye and a venomous drip of the tongue that ensures Anne is always the center of attention. Most important of all, like Turner, Collins, and Wyman before her, Zellweger looks like she’s having a blast, relishing in the show’s outrageous soap stylings. Sadly, the memo didn’t appear to circulate to the rest of the cast, as Zellweger is often the only one having any fun. Frankly, the gap in acting ability between her and her castmembers is significant; even in the best of circumstances Zellweger completely devours her scene partners and renders them insignificant. The actor that comes closest to matching her energy is Dave Annable as an obsessive doctor having an affair with Lisa’s best friend. Everyone else simply disappears in Zellweger’s shadow.
So, why did Renée Zellweger pick What/If as her pre-comeback vehicle (her real comeback comes this fall with the Oscar buzzy Judy Garland biopic)? I think back to Lana Turner in 1981 and what may have compelled her appearance on Falcon Crest. Like Turner’s role probably was for her, Zellweger could play Anne Montgomery in her sleep. And yet, she delivers a fully committed performance that What/If honestly doesn’t deserve from her. Aside from the considerable check I’m certain Netflix wrote her, this sub-CW show offered re-affirmation of her superlative talent, that she could elevate the pedestrian material through sheer force. Throw in some good old-fashioned scenery chewing and it seems like a pretty sweet deal on the road to a career renaissance.