When I first saw the trailer for Renee Zellweger’s new Netflix show “What/If” I expected it to be an intense, seat-of-your-pants drama. The trailer had me expecting a mix of “Dallas” and “Indecent Proposal” dressed up for a modern viewer — dramatic, high stakes, character-driven classic television. It’s supposed to be an anthology series that explores modern morality, but it looks like it plays out like a soap opera.
And I love soap operas: I grew up watching “Guiding Light,” “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” at my grandmother’s knee. Through high school, I could tell you not only about individual characters, but even the plot devices that would save or ruin them. After years of watching with my grandmother, I transitioned to watching with friends who would do things like yell “Open the Bible!” at Edmund on “All My Children.” (The Bible, for the uninitiated, contained proof of the stablehand’s true paternity and his right to inherit land and money.) Although the genre’s fanbase and impact are waning, daytime soaps have been a mainstay of our culture for generations.
Plus, like a lot of soap fans, my love has never been limited to classic American soaps. Courtesy of time spent living overseas and international cable channels, there were some years I could have told you all about the hazards of being Kat Slater on British soap “Eastenders,” or Nuluntu and Phenyo on “Generations,” a South African soap.
Unfortunately, despite having all the trappings of a classic soap in the trailer and the available episodes, “What/If” just doesn’t measure up. Renee Zellweger is compelling as a femme fatale, but no one else is as interesting. You care about what her character, Anne Montgomery, is going to do as long as she’s on screen but the moment the camera isn’t on her, you might find yourself starting to drift off.
From the first episode, the stakes are too low because there is nothing particularly endearing about the young couple caught in Anne’s machinations for whom we’re supposed to root (other than the fact that they have an eclectic mix of friends, unlike most attractive white couples in mainstream soapy dramas). What should be a charming romantic buildup relies too heavily on tropes to begin to make the characters engaging and all the witty bon mots and beautiful sets can’t quite cover up the fact that the plot is so thin, you can’t just drive a truck through it, you can drive a train through it.
Plus, while Zellweger’s acting can stand up to the smarmy character Robert Redford plays in “Indecent Proposal,” her co-stars, Jane Levy and Blake Jenner (no relation to Caitlyn), are no Demi Moore or Woody Harrelson. Zellweger’s Anne is definitely a villain you could love to hate for years to come, but the same can’t be said of the heroes. You don’t care about what their dreams are, or even if they win in the end. They’re filler in the Anne Montgomery show, and frankly Zellweger deserved better writing and better casting. (Or maybe the rest of the cast deserved a chance to mature in their talents before being put in so many scenes with a powerhouse.)
In theory, this is a soap opera, and you can’t expect much in the way of internal consistency across the years of any soap. In execution, though, the 10-episode run of “What/If” is too short for a soap arc to be this bad. The reason soap operas were so popular is because fans invest heavily in the characters. They were willing to follow their favorite characters through everything from vampires to demonic possession to three or five deaths and any number of new faces.
Nighttime soaps are a different animal, sure (although I watched “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “Knots Landing” and “Hotel” as a kid), and as such they never inspire the same convivial engagement. There’s something about the shared joy of watching a ridiculous living puppet on “Passions” or debating which of Erica Kane’s husbands was the best that just doesn’t translate as well to the more vicious murderous plots so common in evening dramas.
But those dramas were still compelling: Fans were again able to invest in individual characters, and they not only wanted to know who shot J.R. on “Dallas,” but also to root for his assailant. It was high stakes entertainment that had people all around the world invested in the outcome. Here, you just sort of want Anne to best the puppy-dog-eyed young 'uns because she’ll give such a great soliloquy after … and they’ll stop being on screen.
You could love to hate this show; I’m sure you could probably make a few drinking games out of the number of times you feel the urge to roll your eyes. But, for a show with so few episodes, it feels like actors and the writers needed to either watch the classic soaps they’re mimicking or set out on a new path, because this isn’t even binge-able TV. It’s TV custom-made for a Renee Zellweger supercut and a bunch of reaction GIFs.