Pat Stacey: Netflix's What/If - sometimes TV trash is just trash
Quite a few critics have been lobbing terms like “knowing”, “ironic” and “guilty pleasure” at Netflix’s What/If, which landed on Friday, like a bag of wet cement dropped from the roof of a skyscraper.
It’s been called a pastiche of ‘80s and ‘90s erotic thrillers like Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and especially Indecent Proposal, the plot of which it directly rips off.
What’s more, it cheekily acknowledges this fact by having a character say: “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad ‘90s movie.”
A few critics have even dusted off the old “so bad it’s good” line. This is the get-out clause reviewers use when they’re not entirely sure whether they’re supposed to be laughing at something or laughing with it, and when they’re afraid of being seen to miss the point or not get the joke. Sorry, I’m not buying that this time.
I doubt the series is that smart or consciously knowing. Sometimes, as Sigmund Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar – and sometimes trash TV is just trash TV.
What/If, the first in an anthology series of morality tales, is trash TV. It’s a soapy, melodramatic dud that deserves to sink without trace like that other recent Netflix stinker, Gypsy.
What/If (and don’t ask me why there’s a slash in the title) comes from Mike Kelley, the man behind the bonkers Revenge. That was a gender-flipped version of The Count Of Monte Cristo. This, as noted above, is a gender-flipped version of Indecent Proposal.
In the original, rich Robert Redford offered struggling young couple Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson a million dollars in return for one night with Moore.
Here, voracious billionaire venture capitalist Anne Montgomery (Renee Zellweger) offers an even more tempting $80m to scientist Lisa (Jane Levy) to save her failing medical-tech company, provided she gets to sleep with her bland hunk of a husband Blake (Sean Donovan), a baseball player-turned-paramedic-turned firefighter, who apparently has a dark and violent secret in his past.
Obviously, there’s more than meets the eye to Montgomery’s offer, which she pitches as a kind of experiment to find out if Lisa is tough enough to join her in the shark pool.
We know this as soon as we see the vast amount of clippings and photographs of Blake that she’s amassed as the corporate and sexual predator.
Let me save you some time and trouble: it’s not worth sticking around for 10 increasingly ludicrous, overblown episodes to find out what that “more than meets the eye” actually is.
Even within the confines of the pastiche/homage/rip-off world What/If inhabits, nothing about it is remotely believable. Least convincing of all is Zellweger.
Slinking around and vamping it up as Montgomery – who practises archery in her vast office and records her thoughts on an old-fashioned dictaphone – she’s woefully miscast.
Montgomery supposedly “wakes up every morning and eats the world for breakfast”.
Zellweger looks like she’d be content nibbling on a lightly toasted waffle.