Time was, a person could find a nice personal indulgence on TV; a potboiler soap-opera with glamorous skulduggery, dramatic OMG twists and implausible but satisfying turns. Lavish sets and dark secrets were part of it. Watching competent actors eat the scenery was part of it, too.
Then the economic infrastructure of network TV started to crumble. It became too expensive to run 22 episodes a season. The audience’s attention span changed, too. Ten to 13 episodes became the norm. One of the last of the old-school soaps was Revenge on ABC, in which Emily Thorne (Canadian Emily VanCamp), plotted payback against a superrich family that destroyed her father’s life and career. Loosely based on The Count of Monte Cristo, it kind of imploded eventually, undone by strung-out storylines. Another example is How to Get Away with Murder, which came in 15-episode seasons and kept the storytelling brazenly twisted but tight.
What/If (streams on Netflix) is a new, masterful hybrid of the old-school soaper and neo-tawdry mystery. It’s cheesy but please-y in its rabid insistence on outrageous melodrama.
The villain is a superrich woman, one Anne Montgomery (Renée Zellweger), a woman so ruthless she can demand to spend the night with the hunky husband of a young woman, Lisa (Jane Levy) who desperately needs some of Anne’s cash. That’s just the start. Naturally, Lisa sets out to destroy Anne and, well, save her marriage and her company. That means one hot mess of trouble and the terrible secrets from the past will come tumbling down.
We meet Anne in her icily beautiful apartment while she trims the bonsai and is talking into a tape reorder. She’s recording her thoughts for what will be a bestselling manifesto about the pure beauty of ruthlessness. “Assert your authority over chance,” Anne says. She also advises against accepting “lesser people’s moral agendas.” Then there’s a storm. Literally, it’s a dark and stormy night.
Next, the drama shifts to the situation of Lisa, a young and idealistic scientist, owner of a start-up pharma company. All she wants to do is save kids who have leukemia, but her company is broke and needs funding. Trouble is, nobody is interested in her idealism. Lisa’s husband Sean (Blake Jenner from Glee) is working as a bartender by night and paramedic by day, and recovering from the disappointment of failing as a pro baseball player. He’s super, super supportive of Lisa. Of course he is. She’s super nice.
So, anyway, Anne turns up at the bar where Sean works and gives him the sort of lip-smacking look that could get a person arrested. She’s interested in backing Lisa’s company, but wonders if Lisa is willing to put everything on the line for her company, specifically, is Lisa willing to give her husband to Anne. Yep, this story is like that old movie Indecent Proposal, but here the older rich character who arrogantly wants to pay for time with someone’s spouse, is a woman!
One thing leads to another and Lisa freaks out. She makes a mad dash to Anne’s icily beautiful apartment and, you’ll never guess, but it’s a dark and stormy night when this happens. There are various subplots boiling in the pot, too. One of Lisa’s friends is having a torrid affair with a surgeon. Sean does some heroic stuff and gets into the academy for firefighters but, it turns out, the real reason for his failure in baseball has been hidden and somebody now wants to blackmail him.
What makes What/If tolerable as escapist/outrageous entertainment is the ceaseless addition of one twisted storyline after another. Also, the intriguing fact that the callous miscreant is a woman. How could a woman do this terrible deed to another one? Just watch her. Anne’s more vicious and cutthroat than any man. She wants another woman’s husband, is all.
The role of cold-blooded capitalist fiend and marriage-wrecker does not come naturally to Zellweger. To make the role function as entertainment she’s obliged to overcook the material in every scene. And she does. You watch while rolling your eyes but savouring the cheesiness if it all.
What/If is 10 episodes long and was created by Mike Kelley, who also created Revenge almost a decade ago. His skill in gothic soap-opera skulduggery is intact. You watch What/If and from the first scene you’re thinking, “This is going to get crazy.” And you join the ride.
Also airing this weekend
Meghan and Harry: A Royal Baby Story Sunday, CBC 9 p.m.) promises, “A profile of the royal couple, including insight from those who have worked in the royal household, royal commentators who have followed their every move and a special appearance from Meghan’s half-sister, Samantha.” That’s a whole other soap opera.
Game of Thrones: The Last Watch (Sunday, Crave/HBO 9 p.m.) is an inside account of the making of the final season of GoT. British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay spent a year “embedded” on the set and now reveals the how and why of the tangled mess that turned out the way it did.