“Everything happens for a reason,” a character says in “What/If,” but it’s not clear what the reason is behind this new Netflix drama, a peculiar mashup of producer Mike Kelley’s last series, “Revenge,” and an overt riff on the movie “Indecent Proposal.” Renee Zellweger headlines the cast, but her toothy role to move the show into the “Yes/Do” watch category.
The debt to “Revenge,” a twisty ABC series, is that one of the characters appears to be playing a very long game, which involves manipulating those around her. The difference is while the motivation for those events was explicitly stated by the title, the impetus here remains hazy, though not enough of a mystery to make the episodes much more than mildly watchable.
The centerpiece here is again a young woman, Lisa (“Suburgatory’s” Jane Levy), who is desperate to launch a medical-tech startup, but struggling to find financing. She eventually finds a backer in the form of Zellweger’s wealthy investor Anne Montgomery, but there’s a hitch: If you want my support, how about a night with your bartender husband, Sean (Blake Jenner)?
Newlyweds Sean and Lisa aren’t the only ones facing moral dilemmas, in a show that overflows with them. The tributary plots involve their friends and family, including Marcos (Juan Castano), who is somewhat dangerously drawing a third party into his relationship; and Angela (Samantha Ware), a married medical resident who is having an affair with her boss (Dave Annable), with all the complications that entails.
Unfortunately, most of those threads feel mostly like killing time until the focus gets back to Zellweger, who provides a lot of portentous advice like “You must be willing to make the hard choices, do the unpleasant things” and “True greatness only comes to those willing to pursue it at any cost.”
While there’s something fairly juicy about turning the “Indecent Proposal” gender dynamic on its head (the 1993 movie that presented Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson with that dilemma is referenced), Zellweger at times seems to have parachuted in from a different show – as if everyone else is doing a network soap, and she’s starring in a revival of “Basic Instinct.”
That aspect of the show should trigger curiosity – especially with Zellweger’s Judy Garland biopic coming up – and in pay-TV circles, that alone is something of a win. Still, whatever sizzle there is baked into the premise, in the execution, “What/If” feels a little too close to “So what?”
“What/If” premieres May 24 on Netflix.