The psychological thriller You premiered in Lifetime last September to fairly low numbers (it averaged about 650,000 viewers per week) and honestly, it never entered my radar. I’d never heard of it until it premiered on Netflix last month (where its second season will also air, as the show is now a “Netflix Original”), and since then, I’ve seen a number of articles written about the series. More importantly, I’ve run across a number of people in real life — largely, casual Netflix viewers — who have gotten hooked on it and binged the entire 10-episode season in mere days, or less. I tuned in largely out of curiosity, but likewise found myself deeply drawn in by the opening episode’s end. Though I never had any intention of watching it in its entirety, I ultimately put aside other obligations and binged through the series in less than a couple of days.
It’s a madly addictive series, although the logline is more offputting than anything: “A clever bookstore manager relies on his savvy Internet know-how to make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him.” That logline is obviously misleading: The “clever” bookstore manager uses his Internet know-how to stalk a woman into falling in love with him. It’s not light, cute stalking, either — this is not Lloyd Dobler keeping his eye on his girlfriend at a party and showing up outside her window with a boombox. Joe Goldberg (Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley) steals the phone of Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), follows her texts, hacks into all of her social media accounts, breaks into her apartment, watches her have sex both from inside and outside of her apartment, and when friends or exes interfere with Joe’s plan to win over Beck, murder is not out of the question.
In the MeToo era, how is this a madly popular show? It’s confounding. Perhaps it helps that the showrunner, Sera Gamble, is female, and that it’s based on a novel written by a woman, Caroline Kepnes, and maybe the fascination with the show is not Joe, but the empathy we feel for Beck? I mean, the threats that Joe poses are real-to-life, and the character likely hits awfully close to home for many.
But what’s interesting about Joe is that he’s a villain protagonist. There is nothing anti-hero about him: He’s pure evil, and we’re watching the show from the point of view of a creepy, murderous stalker. Don’t get me wrong: I love a compelling villain, and often find myself rooting for them to a degree (see, e.g., Drago on Creed II or Killmonger in Black Panther), but the best villains obviously have a sympathetic point of view. There is nothing sympathetic about Joe Goldberg. He’s like Dexter, only his crimes are of a sexual nature and his primary victim did nothing to deserve being stalked.
And yet, it remains strangely compelling television, although our rooting interests do not lie with Joe, or at least they shouldn’t.
No thx https://t.co/VnBqJ3JoxG— Penn Badgley (@PennBadgley) January 9, 2019
A: He is a murderer https://t.co/g2g4f3JvaF— Penn Badgley (@PennBadgley) January 9, 2019
But what is it we are rooting for? For Joe to succeed in his plan and for Beck to fall in love with him? Obviously not! For Joe to get caught and put in prison? Sure. For Beck to find him out and kill him? Yeah. But is there something attractive about Joe? He is clever? He is well read. He does protect the neighbor kid from his mother’s abusive boyfriend. But also, he’s a creepy stalker who sleeps with women under false pretenses. So, like: He’s bad. Super bad. (And, not for nothing, but Penn Badgley gives me the heebs, this character aside.)
But the tone and the beats of the show is more akin to, say, Felicity than, say, Fear or Obsessed or Unforgettable. They’ve put the wrong character into a familiar formula — it’s a rom-com formula, only they’ve replaced the grand romantic gestures with, like, stalking and murder, so our emotions get caught up in the flow while our brains are saying, “What the fuck?”
It’s fascinating, and it works because it is well written, because the characters are well developed, and because it fits into a mold that has already been pre-mapped and hardwired into our brains. We have to constantly remind ourselves that the outcome that Joe wants — where our minds go out of inertia, out of the habit of years of television watching — isn’t the outcome that we want, because Joe is an abhorrent, malicious and evil human being. It’s a horror movie that Sera Gamble and Caroline Kepnes have overlaid into a romcom formula, and for that alone, You is a fascinating albeit uncomfortable series to watch.
Header Image Source: Netflix