One of the best remembered genres of the 1990s was the erotic thriller. The label was slapped onto popular films such as Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Wild Things. More importantly, the erotic thriller masqueraded as a respectable story, but that in reality was really about showing as much sex and nudity within the confines of an R-rating. For an entire generation of kids, these movies often found their way into your home through a parent's Blockbuster rental, leading to a slew of questions you couldn't have anticipated.
Nowadays, the erotic thriller is all but eliminated courtesy of the ratings systems which aims to remove sex from mainstream cinema. This genre, interestingly, flourishes or at least attempts to flourish on television. In the age of streaming services, there's a new kind of freedom which allows TV shows to more freely push boundaries. That's why Netflix's new series, What/If, feels like a throwback to the smutty Red Shoe Diary landscape of the mid-'90s.
Billed as an anthology examining morality, What/If follows couple Sean and Lisa (Blake Jenner and Jane Levy, respectively). Lisa is an idealistic scientist attempting to woo venture capitalists to invest in her company, and Sean is the supportive husband hiding a dark secret from his past. Demoralized and nearly broke, Lisa gets an offer from successful author and entrepreneur Anne Montgomery (Renee Zellweger) that might solve the couple's problems. Anne is willing to fund Lisa's company, in exchange for one night with her husband.
If the plot sounds like the 1993 movie Indecent Proposal, you're not alone. In fact, What/If even includes a joke about that same movie, which Zellweger's Anne coolly dismisses. Yet despite acknowledging its origins, it's impossible to divorce the Netflix series from its inspiration. What/If features multiple plots connected to Lisa and Sean's lives, aimed at examining the intersection of love and sex with regards to trust. This same convergence is at the heart of the entire '90s erotic thriller genre. Michael Douglas's character ends up sleeping with a woman who becomes obsessed with him in Fatal Attraction. Similarly, Lisa's friend Angela (Samantha Marie Ware) has an affair with a co-worker who becomes equally obsessed with her. Meanwhile, Anne has a past riddled with lies and manipulation à la Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct.
It's easy to see the allure of bringing back these movies. With media gripped in a massive nostalgia boom, everything old is new again and that's a concept Netflix has always taken and ran with, whether it be the '80s-tinged Stranger Things or the plethora of films from its rom-com vault. Yet, the '90s erotic thriller was unique. Movies, up to that point, had never truly embraced the intersection between sex and narrative. The porn industry was certainly the main example, but the erotic thriller pushed the boundary and left audiences questioning — How much story differentiated an erotic thriller and pornography? Does an A-list star make a movie classier?
These features were also known for putting women in supreme power positions in an era where they were severely marginalized. Despite the strides that second-wave feminism had made, the '80s "backlash era" ⏤ a term coined by author Susan Faludi ⏤ saw women in movies apologizing for their life choices, often stuck choosing between career and men/family. They couldn't "have it all" and movies sought to remind women of their place. Yet the erotic thriller gave women power, not just sexually but professionally. Many of the female villains in these features had their own jobs, their own money, and were perceived as completely independent. They had sex when they wanted and, depending on how you want to read them, it wasn't until a male protagonist ruined things in some way that the female villain went off the rails.
With only four episodes released to critics ahead of time, it's unclear how many more comparisons can be made between What/If and the erotic thrillers of the '90s. It's obvious the show is using these films as inspiration, and maybe the biggest inspiration is in Zellweger herself. The question of whether the '90s erotic thriller is empowering to women or not will always be there, and Zellweger's Anne Montgomery isn't digging new ground so much as she's finding a comfortable home within a solid foundation. Rocking some of the best costuming you'll find this year (a must for all '90s erotic thriller baddies of either gender), Zellweger is able to take a simple line, like demanding Lisa fire an old friend, and stretching them for peak coyness. Every turn of phrase she has is both manipulative and deliciously saucy. Is Lisa making too much out of Anne's generosity or not? The best erotic thrillers can easily be flipped to see how the normal heroes are the villains and such is the case here.
At the same time, Anne is all about testing Lisa's resolve. As two women in power, smart and determined, there's an awareness of how dumb they're fighting over a man is. A key point of Anne's manipulation of Lisa is that the once happy wife will always want to know about her husband's possible philandering, even if she maintains there's trust in their relationship. (See, the '90s mentality that men ruin everything!) Of course, because this is a nostalgic throwback there's evidence that Anne might not be mentally stable. One of the first four episodes sees her returning to a plastic-wrapped apartment with a possible connection to her mother? Shades of Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie abound! As we know with the filmic history at the center, all the women will probably have to choose between career and family, though the show might surprise us and eschew that decision.
What/If is certainly silly, but if anything it should inspire you to have a makeshift Blockbuster night and bust out the '90s erotic features you were once too old to enjoy with your family. Have fun, and remember that all good '90s villainesses were queens at heart.
You can stream What/If on Netflix now.