Castle Rock’s Jane Levy plays Lisa, a scientist married to Blake Jenner’s Sean, a former baseball player. Lisa is trying to get funding for her med-tech startup company. Enter Renée Zellweger’s Anne, who is willing to do just that with her What/If proposition.
In order to get the money, there is a considerable catch involved. Lisa and Sean have to agree to something huge. Anne will give them cash if she gets to sleep with Sean. Enter the same moral dilemma faced by Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson’s protagonists back in 1993's Indecent Proposal. Critics and the show itself apparently recognize the parallels.
If you have watched your share of 90s films, you know how that sort of deal tends to work out. How did the critics think it worked in the show? Well, this is what they had to say about What/If.
The general consensus is that What/If is a binge-able guilty pleasure. Good news for Netflix and somewhat good news for prospective viewers. Variety’s Daniel D’Addario felt that little about the show worked. However, there is an upside to it. He said:
Little of What/If truly works: Lisa and Sean are such easy prey that they grow unsympathetic, and the story defaults to outrageousness too early and too often. And yet its episodes, forty-five minutes of old-school soap oozing out of glossily high-toned packaging, leave a simpatico viewer satisfied.
What/If comes from Revenge creator, Mike Kelley. The ABC soap apparently does not rinse off his follow-up. EW’s Kristen Baldwin gave it a “B,” which is not the worst score ever. She feels like it gets ahead of itself and she references the reliable television measure for when things go too far on TV: jumping the shark. Thank you, Happy Days’ Fonzie.
Based on the first half of the season, Kelley’s drama plans to burn hot, bright and crazy for 10 episodes before flaming out — if not spectacularly, at least on its own overblown terms. What/If does not jump the shark — it begins with the shark in its rearview mirror and it never looks back.
Like many critics, RogerEbert.com’s Allison Shoemaker was also entertained by What/If’s guilty pleasure sensibility. She stresses that if you enjoy the ingredients that make the show, you should be good to go. There are twists, trysts, and “chaotic” personal lives.
If you, the hypothetical viewer, can enjoy a show purely for the twists, slow-motion sex scenes, and chaotic personal lives of a group of good-looking young people, look no further.
Also getting on the guilty pleasure train when it comes to What/If is TV Insider’s Matt Roush. The critic acknowledges the lack of substance involved. Like any sugary treat, the Netflix series seems designed to bring you back for more, and it succeeds in doing so.
Whatever the source, Netflix redefines the TV guilty pleasure in its glossy and preposterous new series What/If, which transcends junk-food TV and moves into the realm of trans-fat TV. This perverse concoction from the creator of Revenge is definitely bad for you, but good luck resisting it should this be your preferred brand of nonsense.
Daily Telegraph’s Ed Power does not mince words when it comes to summing up What/If. He gives it a 3 out of 5, a score that is far from terrible. He also gives a nod to its larger-than-life storyline before also going in for a food analogy, and it pays off.
It’s utterly barking, with dialogue fruitier than a basket of bananas and a story that starts off unhinged and soon becomes completely decoupled from reality. . . The 10-part drama is also very addictive and you may well find yourself devouring episodes as if polishing off an extra large plate of chips even though you're already stuffed.
The Atlantic’s Sophie Gilbert went right in for what works on What/If and that is Renée Zellweger. Gilbert praises the work that Zellweger does keeping the show from becoming forgettable. All the while, praising Zellweger for elevating the dramatic thriller.
Whatever reasons Zellweger had for wanting to take this role (and you can only hope there were several hundreds of thousands of them), she transforms What/If single-handedly. Without her, it might have been a mere aberration—anachronistic, clunky, and immediately forgotten. With her, it’s a much more interesting beast, a show that allows an Oscar-winning actor to expose the story’s flaws and elevate it as a curiosity all at the same time.
The Guardian’s Stuart Heritage was conflicted over What/If. Finding it challenging to sum up the show’s overall quality, he calls upon the notion of the subgenre known for being so bad it is good. Heritage does not think it ranks as the best of that category though. He says:
So, yes, What/If is tricky to explain. It isn’t the best show you’ll ever see. It isn’t even the worst best show. It might be the best worst show, but then again it also might be the worst worst show. Honestly, I’m stumped.
Overall, my read is that What/If is a guilty pleasure. So, if you enjoy such series for what they are – an escape -- the new Netflix show could be to your taste. If Mike Kelley has delivered something on the level of Revenge’s first season, it should have staying power.
Of note for fans of Revenge is that What/If’s cast boasts a familiar face on that front. Gabriel Mann, who played Nolan Ross on the ABC sudser, has a role on What/If. Mann recently guest starred on a pivotal episode of NBC’s The Blacklist, so it could be interesting to see what he gets up to in this new thriller.
Part 1 of What/If premieres May 24 on Netflix, alongside a lot of other new content.