What/If is as baffling as the forward slash in the middle of its title. Netflix's new thriller from Mike Kelley (of Revenge fame) sets out to be a nighttime soap that asks high-minded, existential questions instead of who is sleeping with whose husband. Well, What/If still asks who is sleeping with whose husband, but the grand question Kelley is trying to answer is: What is the cost of trust?
Centered on the fraught relationship between a cold-blooded angel investor who swoops in to save a revolutionary medical technology company run by an optimistic ingenue, What/If examines the consequences of making a deal with the devil. Money-flush Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger) agrees to make all of Lisa's (Jane Levy) dreams come true for one night with her husband, Sean (Blake Jenner). Deciding that their love can weather any artificially created sh--storm, Lisa takes the deal to save her life's work. Predictably, Anne uses the night to further her own inscrutable agenda; Lisa, determined not to be a pawn in Anne's game, strikes back in ways that further Anne's long game.
There is a prestige drama version of the show in which Anne's long game is actually surprising, and there is a guilty-pleasure version of the show that burns through twice the plot in half the time. The version of What/If that Netflix produced is an attempt to combine the two that drags down its already underutilized cast. The performances are so leaden that they sink any attempts to transcend into camp. But that's unsurprising considering that the actors (especially the spectacular Jane Levy from Suburgatory) only have caricatures to work with. Watching Renée Zellweger play a billionaire business tycoon who passive-aggressively shoots arrows at her protégé (she literally practices archery in her San Francisco penthouse) should be thrilling, or at the very least, endlessly meme-able. Instead, each episode turns the audience just a little more against a cast of characters who seem determined to get in their own way, despite several heavy-handed danger signs. The fact that the show never puts in the work to push past these caricatures keeps it from leaping into prestige drama territory.
The one saving grace of the show is that it's really three different shows at once, each more insane than the other, and each inexplicably sending the ensemble cast on character arcs that barely intersect. There's the murder-filled thriller involving Anne, Lisa, and Sean; a family drama about Lisa's recently out-of-the-closet brother questioning his first serious relationship and coming to terms with a generational tragedy; and a Lifetime movie in which Sean's high school friends, who are now married to each other, face off against a psychotic boss with whom the wife had an affair. The chances are at least one of those genres appeals to you, and watching them all car crash against each other in a single show is admittedly fun. (The Lifetime plotline was my personal favorite; Dave Annable as the cheating boss is exactly as over-the-top and chilling as the whole show could be.)
A more thoughtful version of the show would have woven these threads tightly together to make an overarching point about trust, or at least attempt to answer the big questions it poses. But what Netflix gave us is the white noise of well-paid actors chewing extremely expensive scenery. The only revelation What/If really offers is the thought of what you could have binged in those 10 hours instead.
What/If streams Friday, May 24 on Netflix.