Calling your show ‘What/If’ regrettably leads to many snarky possibilities. What If – the show lived up to its neo-noir aspirations rather than languishing around in soap opera territory? What If – the various plots actually meaningfully interacted with each other? Or maybe What If – the concept of pacing was introduced? I’m being rude because What/If has the ingredients of a compelling mystery but it acts too darn mysterious about it.
Self-styled ‘cold as ice’ venture capitalist, Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger) will provide rescuing investment into a failing biotech company owned by Lisa (Jane Levy) but on one condition. She must have a night alone with her husband, Sean (Blake Jenner) and, contractually, he will not be allowed to speak anything about what happens or the money is forfeited. Lisa and Sean reckon their rock strong relationship can take it, but the strain quickly begins to show as lies compound over lies.
The main draw of the show is that there are other factors at play. Seemingly perfect Sean is hiding a dark secret and it’s possible that Anne knows about it. Is her interest in the couple based on more than just investment? Anne herself is hiding some weakness. There are allusions to her coming from an abusive past and that the source of her funds may not be safe or legitimate. Hints are dropped and interest at the intrigue is what is most likely to keep you watching.
Zellweger gets her bitch game on strong with this role, clearly relishing the meat of the scripts. But her performance, whilst exuding power through her body language to her clipped tones, is often a one-note thing. It takes a while for the secrets of her own past to give her anything to do other than just smoulder with self-confidence. What/If is clearly proud of her character, but paces itself badly so that for the most part she is just one dimensional. Even so, her scenes with Levy as they vie for superiority are the most compelling.
What/If has a bad case of the subplots. There are several spinning around in the first half that barely intersect beyond us learning that the main people are such and such’s friend / brother / lover. One tangent is when gay couple Marcos and Lionel introduce a third party into their relationship. Immigration lawyer Marcos’ neurosis make up the emotional arc here but everyone around him is a ‘perfect script companion’. When everyone says and does the perfect thing for so long we are left dragging our feet waiting for Marcos to go through his journey.
Angela and Todd were high school sweethearts, now married, and Angela’s medical career and marriage is put at risk by her affair with the Chief of Surgery. Whilst Todd himself features in Sean’s dark past, the affair element is pulled straight from any day time TV soap. I found it difficult to care, especially as it stands utterly alone from the interesting parts.
What/If is an interesting central mystery surrounded by tons of extraneous dullness, delivered with monotone dialogue that fails to ignite. Even when things start to come together, the plot hopping in the first half has so skewed the pacing that one slow reveal after another brings diminishing returns. So, What If the show could hook me in and retain my interest throughout? What if indeed.
Words by Michael Record