"Sometimes bad television happens to good actors," says Sophie Gilbert. "There’s no other way to rationalize what’s happening in What/If, a show in which Renée Zellweger is biting off chunks of scenery, shredding them with her dainty white teeth, and digesting them on camera while everyone else sits limply in her shadow. It’s not fair, really. There’s Zellweger—one Oscar, three Golden Globes, and three SAG Awards to her name—reaching the highest echelons of glorious diva-dom in her portrayal of Anne Montgomery, a superstar venture capitalist/amateur archer/revenge-plot architect. Then there’s the rest of the cast, drably saying their lines out loud with all the effervescence of powdered whey. What/If...is a perplexing thing to think about, or to try to synopsize. In its heart it’s an ABC drama from a decade ago, splashy and soapy and steeped in pathetic fallacy. (Mike Kelley, who created What/If, was last seen on TV spearheading the 2011 ABC show Revenge, a loose, Hamptons-set update of The Count of Monte Cristo.)...Here is where What/If really gets hoisted by its own petard. When you’ve had the opportunity to see Zellweger in full sexy speculator mode, speaking entirely in aphorisms, undulating across the room with all the hip-sway of Jessica Rabbit, and shooting literal arrows at her antagonists, everything else seems awfully dull.
What/If's big problem is that it's just a bad network series that's on Netflix: The first two episodes are "larded with bad writing, dubious editing choices and the kind of weightless fluff that props up most network soap operas. You'll recognize it as the gooey ease of it saturates your body," says Tim Goodman, adding: "As much as we all might wish that Netflix would aspire to better shows, more original shows, shows that don't feel like they were poached off ABC's schedule, sometimes the streamer fails us."
What/If is so bad, it's good: "Now, instead of just one element of the show being bad, imagine an entire series built from that same qualitative mentality," says Ben Travers. "Putting all those pieces together is difficult, let alone finding a story to support them, but What/If does exactly that. Mike Kelley’s soapy, silly, melodramatic, twist-driven thriller is at no times not entertaining. The 10-episode first season tosses one loony development in after another, piling up the drama as fast as it piles up the fun. Netflix’s anthology is so bad it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and yet still smart enough to induce gasps. It’s Michelin-star trash, and you won’t be able to stop binging."
What/If is so bad, and not in a fun way: The problem is Zellwegger, "who doesn’t seem to be having any fun here," says Amy Amatangelo. "She's buying the utter nonsense the show is selling. I loved the first few seasons of (What/If creator Mike Kelley's) Revenge, until it went off the rails. What/If begins from a position of being off the rails."
Creator Mike Kelley says he has a "slightly unhealthy obsession with all things Mrs. Robinson": "That character is so powerful and witty and compelling, but also tragic. The Graduate was my first real movie obsession, and I always thought, ‘What if Mrs. Robinson didn’t soak herself in martinis every night and indulge in self-loathing? What if she put it all into self-enterprise and success and became a person of consequence?' As luck would have it, Renée felt the same way about (star) Anne Bancroft and Mrs. Robinson. I actually named the character after Anne Bancroft.”