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'What/If' Brings an Evil Renée Zellweger to the Small Screen
May 24, 2019  | By David Hinckley

You might remember the joke in which a man meets an attractive woman at a party, gets to talking with her and asks if she would sleep with him for a million dollars.

Of course, she murmurs light-heartedly.

Okay, he says. How about for $10?

Shocked and offended, she pulls away and spits out, “What kind of woman do you think I am?”

“We’ve already established that,” he says. “Now we’re just negotiating price.”

That disturbing joke doesn’t exactly summarize What/If, a 10-episode series that becomes available Friday on Netflix. It does, however, come to mind as the intense and troubling drama unfolds.  

Renée Zellweger (top) stars in What/If as venture capitalist Anne Montgomery, a woman who lives to wield power. In some ways, she calls to mind Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada, except that compared to Anne Montgomery, Miranda is a kindly grandmother who bakes chocolate chip cookies for orphans.

Anne seems to establish herself early as an obsessive borderline psycho, willing to do whatever is necessary to get whatever she wants, regardless of the impact on anyone else.

Why? At first glance, it looks like she does it because she can. 

As we get to know her better, we see that she is driven by other factors as well. While they aren’t necessarily mitigating or admirable, we get a fuller sense of how and why she became the rather unpleasant person she is.

Villains are usually the critical characters in any story, and Zellweger has created a good one here.

Through Anne, What/If poses a larger psychological question: how the ripples from a single compromised moral decision can redirect the course of a person’s life.

Anne herself is way past a single compromised moral decision. She’s built her life on a series of self-serving maneuvers, and while we do eventually see issues and shadings, she doesn’t spend time struggling over doing the right thing.

So most of the moral agonizing and consequences fall here to Lisa (Jane Levy, top) and Sean (Blake Jenner), a young married couple with admirable dreams that seem to be slipping out of their grasps.  

He was a hot rookie pitcher for the San Francisco Giants until he had a bad season and the team cut him. Now he works as an EMT and moonlights as a bartender while he waits to try out for the Fire Department.

She runs a medical tech company, a startup developing a program that can identify individual characteristics of cancer victims so their treatment can be tailored to their specific body needs.

The technology has great promise. It also could undercut the profits of large drug companies, so the potential investors she needs to keep the company afloat fear they would end up spending years and millions in litigation.

When we meet Lisa, she’s struggling not just to somehow secure a future for the company, but to pay back her not-rich parents for the seed money they gave her to start it in the first place. She has also spent all her savings and everything Sean had left from his baseball career.

So Lisa is vulnerable and quietly desperate, which makes her a perfect mark for Anne, who’s got all the money in the world and also seems to possibly want something Lisa has: Sean.

This makes What/If, at least superficially, a potentially gender-flipped version of Indecent Proposal, the 1990s Robert Redford/Demi Moore movie. Both Lisa and Anne reference that flick in their initial conversation.

True to its more expansive premise, What/If spends less time on this highly charged potential transaction itself than on the ripples, or waves, it could send through everyone’s pond.

As it gradually reveals hidden corners of everyone’s character, we see that no one is without flaws or an occasional virtue, which probably reflects life and definitely enriches the drama. It does not, however, suggest there are not better and worse people.   

Zellweger’s Anne is cool, confident, and menacing. Levy’s Lisa starts the game behind but turns out to be a quick learner. While Sean, at times, seems to be a pawn, he isn’t without weapons.

We also pick up some quality supporting characters, notably including Lisa’s determined business partner Cassidy (Daniella Pineda).

What/If sometimes meanders in tone, swinging from uncomfortable to a little soapy. That also helps make it one of the relatively rare and welcome shows that doesn’t telegraph which of several wildly different possible places it could end up.  

If all goes well this time around, What/If plans to follow the paths of Fargo or True Detective and come back with a different story that addresses the same central theme.  

Season 1 earns an encore.

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