With its new drama What/If, Netflix aims to resurrect the psychosexual dramas from the ‘80s,’90s, and early 2000s, particularly those written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Adrian Lyne, Paul Verhoeven, and in one case, William Friedkin. The series is very much in the vein of films like 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Jade and, most obviously, Indecent Proposal. From Revenge creator Mike Kelley, What/If is an anthology series set to explore all the ways a single choice can alter the lives of not just the person (or persons) making it, but also all of the people around them. If you haven’t already guessed, the first season centers around the notion of secrets, betrayal, and fidelity, especially as it pertains to Lisa and Sean Donovan (Jane Levy and Blake Jenner), a young couple enjoying the bliss of a seemingly perfect marriage until wealthy venture capitalist Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger) arrives to become the cause of and solution to all their problems.
Trailers for the series made little effort to conceal the overt comparisons to Lyne’s 1993 film starring Robert Redford, Demi Moore, and Woody Harrelson, with Anne offering to fully fund Lisa’s struggling biotech company in exchange for a night alone with Sean. The proposal is no less indecent as a result of its gender-swapping, and What/If takes great pains to set up and move through the details of Anne’s offer and Lisa and Sean’s subsequent quandary as a result. There’s an expected amount of hemming and hawing over the implied infidelity (and Sean’s contractual obligation never to disclose what transpired during that night, to Lisa or anyone) before the couple makes their fateful decision. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a psychosexual thriller if Lisa and Sean said, “Thanks but no thanks.”
The series has more to offer than its depiction of a pair of twenty-somethings’ conscious uncoupling for just one night and the emotional ramifications that inevitably arise as a result. Like Revenge, What/If features an expansive cast, allowing the series to follow a diverse set of attractive young people as they navigate the choppy waters of longterm relationships, and are tempted by some very basic human desires. And again, like Revenge, Kelley and his writers position the characters around a single broad conceit, one that affords them the chance to approach the central theme from different angles and perspectives.
That introduces Lisa’s foster brother, Marcos (Juan Castano), and his boyfriend Lionel (John Clarence Stewart), as they invite a stranger named Kevin (Derek Smith) into their bedroom for a single evening, only to find out he’s not as interested in their tryst being a one-and-done event as they are. Similarly, Lisa’s best friend, Angela (Samantha Marie Ware) is cheating on her paramedic husband Todd (Keith Powers) with a fellow surgeon played by Dave Annabel. When she discovers she's pregnant, Angela has to make a choice, but, again, finds unintended consequences in her decision. These swirling subplots of secrets, lies, and infidelity underline just how potentially devastating Lisa and Sean’s is and will continue to be, especially after Lisa unsuccessfully attempts to renege on the deal once the wheels are set in motion.
What/If is mostly successful in capturing the tone of the films it’s drawing inspiration from, and Zellweger offers up an entertainingly exaggerated performance as Anne, first playing her as a steely and shrewd businesswoman who always gets what she wants, before revealing the inner turmoil bubbling beneath her otherwise unflustered exterior. As such, much of what makes What/If work is seeing Zellweger in the role of the seductive antagonist — there are hints of everything from Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammell to Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest to Linda Fiorentino’s Trina Gavin in her character — with more on her mind than what’s in Blake Jenner’s pants.
While the series proves to be more than a salacious gender-flipped twist on some of Adrian Lyne’s biggest hits, What/If does take some time getting there. The first four hours are largely dedicated to Lisa and Sean’s decision and its subsequent fallout, as well as developing the various subplots with her brother and best friend as they also try infidelity on for size. The repetition of the couple’s anguish and the crumbling of their marriage, after having seemingly choosing money over love begins to wear thin before too long, however. Thankfully, the series takes a sharp turn with regard to the true nature of what Sean was asked to do during his night alone with Anne, suggesting it had more to do with his involvement in an unsolved crime from years prior than sex.
That there is an added dimension to Anne’s twisted game makes binge-watching the 10 episode season easier, though the payoff to the mystery may leave some viewers wanting more. Nevertheless, What/If makes for a sometimes campy, sometimes entertaining throwback to a subgenre of films most Hollywood studios aren’t interested in (or capable of) making anymore.
What/If will stream exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, May 24.