There’s one film in particular that looms large over proceedings as we meet Lisa and Sean, the couple at the centre of the story. They’re besotted with one another but struggling financially when an extremely wealthy and enigmatic benefactor walks into their lives and offers them a lifeline. The only snag is a certain obligation needs to be fulfilled beforehand.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because the show’s creator Mike Kelley has based the show’s premise on Indecent Proposal. In the 1993 film, billionaire Robert Redford offered struggling architect Woody Harrelson $1million to sleep with his wife, played by Demi Moore.
This time, the gender tables are reversed, and the reward is raised, as Renée’s character Anne Montgomery offers a multi-million-dollar investment in Lisa’s company in return for one night alone with Sean. It’s even referred to at one point, when Lisa informs him, “This whole idea was ripped right out of a bad Nineties movie”.
Mike is the man behind 2008’s swinger TV show Swingtown and the long-running series Revenge, a female-focused take on The Count of Monte Cristo with lashings of soap opera melodrama. “I’ve spent the best part of my career creating television that explores the dramatic ripple effects of what happens when acceptable people do unacceptable things, and the power of a single, fateful decision to change the trajectory of an entire life,” he says.
“For our inaugural morality play, I’ve taken the provocative question at the centre of Indecent Proposal (would you wager your marriage against the resolution of all your financial worries), flipped the gender roles, modernised the stakes and injected a sly, scene-grabbing malefactor in the form of Anne Montgomery.”
The first episode opens on the woman in question wandering around her fabulous penthouse apartment, recording her thoughts on trust, fate and the will to succeed for what will be her bestselling book At All Cost. The action then moves forward a year, to Lisa running through the streets, not only in a torrential downpour but in slow-motion for added dramatic effect. Ominous music reaches a crescendo just as she arrives at a skyscraper emblazoned with the letter M in a desperate attempt to stop Sean going through with their agreement. We then wind back a few days to see just how they found themselves in this tricky predicament.
Sean isn’t allowed to talk about what happened so, like Lisa, we the viewer will have to wait to find out exactly what went down on the night in question. And maybe it’s not what we presume, given that Anne, in a girlish voice that belies her Machiavellian heart, tells the baby-faced husband, “I haven’t begun to tell you what you’re doing here” before the camera pans away.
Sean (Blake Jenner) is the kind of man who works two jobs to make ends meet, provides comforting pep talks and saves kids from burning buildings but there’s a suggestion he’s dealing with some deep-rooted anger issues; while Lisa (Emma Stone lookalike Jane Levy), is a whip smart scientist who’s determined to play Anne at her own game, but is clearly coping with emotional upheaval in her childhood.
There’s plenty simmering away beneath the surface, and that’s before we get to the supporting cast, which includes the couple’s friends Angela and Todd who have their own secrets and Lisa’s brother Marcos and his openminded partner Lionel.
The ripple effect Mike alludes to will undoubtedly spread wide across the group as the series progresses but make no mistake, this is Renée’s show. For one, she looks incredible and is clearly revelling in the role of villain, slinking around in an endless array of silk outfits, inexplicably practicing the bow and arrow in her sitting room or staring out onto the San Francisco skyline during yet another thunderstorm. “Anne’s a ferocious survivor. She’s conniving and unscrupulous, with a very specific reason behind every move she makes,” says Mike. “In spite of the searing consequences of her actions that play out across the story, Anne is perfectly willing to live with the fallout so long as she’s proven the nihilistic doctrine that has always driven her, “Fate is a lie. There is only choice.”
What/If doesn’t proclaim to be nuanced fare, so if you prefer your drama to be on the subtler end of the spectrum, you might want to keep scrolling for something more suitable. But if you’re looking for the sort of sheer escapism that only a ridiculously attractive cast, aspirational locations and unnecessary slow-motion sequences can provide, then sit back and wallow in this unadulterated guilty pleasure.
What/If begins is available on Netflix from Friday, May 24
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