Netflix's latest water-cooler hit, Penn Badgley stalker drama You, is the latest example of how scripted originals are often overlooked in a Peak TV landscape of nearly 500 scripted originals.
You first debuted Sept. 9 on Lifetime to relatively good reviews. The series, which counts prolific hit-maker Greg Berlanti as an exec producer, centers on Joe (Badgley of Gossip Girl fame), an obsessive stalker with a flair for the dramatic who utilizes social media to make the woman of his dreams fall for him.
Lifetime showed early confidence in You and renewed the pricey drama from Warner Bros. Television for a second season well before its series debut. Netflix quickly snapped up streaming rights, which helped to offset the initial cost of the series (which allowed Lifetime to take the pricey swing). Despite promising reviews — The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Daniel Feinberg called You "extremely watchable" — You had a challenging time cutting through the clutter on Lifetime, drawing only a live viewership of 611,000. The A+E-owned cable network reversed course on a second season — for which it would have had to pay a steep licensing fee to Warners — and Netflix swooped in to take first-run rights to season two mere weeks before the streaming giant had any idea how the series would perform on its platform.
Since Netflix unspooled season one Dec. 26, You has taken the Internet by storm. Its bleakly dark humor and subversion of rom-com tropes make You a prime candidate for viral success, and Netflix is very aware of that fact as its social media presence has become a shrine to the car crash romance at the center of the series. From retweeting viewers in awe of just how far the show pushes the boundaries to the unsavory crushes on the serial killer at its center to the Netflix U.S. Twitter bio, which currently reads "Passively aggressively calling guys named Joe 'Joseph' since 1998," in reference to the tense relationship between Joe and Beck's best friend Peach, the service has thoroughly embraced the meme-able nature of You.
This isn't the first time that Netflix has leveraged the social media popularity of one of its original projects. Recently,Bird Box was streamed by 45 million accounts in the first week that it debuted, which many linked to its apparently huge viral success, which included memes and a Bird Box challenge. That project shares an interesting factor with You: a passionate and verbal audience that appears to be made up largely of women. It makes sense that in an age of #MeToo and Time's Up, a show that highlights toxic masculinity and explores the line between romance and obsession would find a home, especially on a platform like Twitter where so many of those movements and conversations began.
It helps that You is an inherently bingeable prospect. From the very first episode it presents a series of ever escalating events and unhinged characters that make it a natural candidate for the continuous viewing that Netflix enables. It's not just that You is uniquely positioned to appeal to a contemporary female audience who are tired of stalkerish love stories painted as romance, but it also plays on the ever-relevant trope of the "nice guy," with Badgley ostensibly just creating an extension of his "lonely boy" character Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl. That self-aware bit of meta-casting is a great example of the line that You straddles: dark humor, social commentary and a slick dissection of how the tropes of romantic comedies can be dangerous when translated into real life.
It will be interesting to see if interest in the show lasts. With the entire series available online, including the shocking finale — which sets up the second season in a fittingly pulpy fashion — it's inevitable that the fervor for You will wane before the second season hits. (A premiere date has not yet been determined.) Whether or not Netflix can re-create the success and apparently out-of-nowhere popularity of the first season is still to be seen; often the freedom of the Netflix model can end up overwhelming smaller original shows that were developed elsewhere. For now, though, the series is continuing its victory lap on the web with Badgley still responding to fans and Netflix continuing its social media onslaught with Instagram takeovers by the cast and a whole lot of memes.