It’s no wonder that the American soap opera began to die out at the dawn of the streaming platform. 2013 saw the official death of two of the most significant and beloved daytime series, All My Children and One Life to Live. In the same months, Netflix launched their foundational series House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Amazon would also break ground on their original content with the less than formative Alpha House. With no signs of fresh blood on the horizon, there are only four series still banging the daytime drum to dwindling viewers: The Bold and the Beautiful, Days of Our Lives, General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless. We can blame a fraction of the death of this brand of entertainment on waning tastes, but the larger cultural shift from network television to streaming has certainly hit the genre’s viewership numbers much harder. Why aren’t our streaming platforms filling the soap opera void?
Almost by accident, Netflix has done just that with their new pulpy guilty pleasure What/If, which arrives on Friday with its complete first season. Planned as an anthology series, the series follows the ripple effects of one Silicon Valley startup, led by the idealistic Lisa (Jane Levy). She has a hot husband Sean (Blake Jenner) who adores her and a wide circle of friends with sexual escapades at the ready. But it’s the arrival of evil billionaire investor Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger) that sets in motion all of What/If’s arch, noir-inflected drama.
If anyone is given pause by the show’s earnest display of double-crosses or the prestige presence of 2019‘s comeback queen Zellweger, they might just be misinterpreting the series as something more high-minded than it is. Though Netflix has dabbled in telenovelas, this series is the closest thing a streamer has come to indulging in the faux-gloss daytime traditions that it had a part in killing. Call up your amnesiac evil twin who was recently poisoned, because the soap opera might be back.
In true soap fashion, the show earnestly marinates in the emotionally and procedurally ludicrous. Zellweger’s villainous diva plots in her tower as cheesy thunderbolts loom and her silk wardrobe blows in its bisexual breeze. Lisa’s virtuousness satisfies an archetype we know the season will only upend, drawing its morality tale from dated pressures placed on sexual fidelity. Jenner dances in his underwear to boy band music. Meanwhile, Lisa’s friend circle features subplots about pregnancy with multiple possible fathers, professional loyalty, and [gasp] a threesome.
But none of its stereotypes offend because of how they signify the bygone genre. Soaps are built on absolutes, taking simple conflicts to extreme ends just for the gasp-factor. What/If thrives on that brand of silly intrigue and arched-eyebrow drama. And mostly, it’s the kind of melodrama that constantly reminds us that we shouldn’t be taking it all that seriously.
It’s no surprise that What/If is such a genre indulgence given that it comes from Revenge creator Mike Kelley. That series had a passionate following before fizzling its way to four seasons as the post-Desperate Housewives primetime soap-du-jour, offering a beachside femme take on The Count of Monte Cristo. What/If is as unpretentious in its schlocky aims as that show was, though Revenge tried harder to bridge a middle-ground between prestige and cheese.
Whereas primetime soap-inflected dramas hide their baser instincts in order to be perceived as serious, What/If behaves more like a genuine soap, treating factors like logic and nuance as beside the point for what it's trying to do. The most prestigious aspect of the show is that it stars reemergent Oscar-winner Zellweger, but even she is having too much fun playing against type and reveling in femme fatale villainy for its own sake. If nothing else, the show is an oasis in a desert of television taking itself much too seriously.
As debate continues to rage on about what is and isn’t camp, Netflix’s new binge-worthy thriller delivers the soap opera version of the term with all-caps enthusiasm. What/If unashamedly aims to satisfy more primal viewer desires, daytime or otherwise.
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Chris Feil is a freelancer writer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His previous work can be found at Vulture, Vice, Paste, and The Film Experience. Follow him @chrisvfeil on Twitter.