'You': TV Review

Watchable, if not quite worthy of obsession.
9/9/2018

Lifetime's new stalking drama imagines what it would be like if Dan from 'Gossip Girl' became romantically obsessed with Serena and used social media as a key piece of his manipulation.

The romantic indulgence, or at least extended toleration, of male misbehavior has been one of the pillars of TV's saturated moment known as Peak TV.

It wasn't just the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites and Stringer Bells, the great antiheroes at the center of classic shows. Chuck Bass attempted to date-rape an underage girl in the pilot for Gossip Girl and was then presented as a romantic figure throughout the series, even after he treated his girlfriend as property in a trade for a hotel. Veronica Mars fans hastily bought into a redemption for Logan Echolls that nothing in the text ever allowed me to embrace. Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans accepted Spike's questionable transition from murderous adversary to swoony love interest and even, in many cases, shrugged off an attempted rape. Even Dexter Morgan, with a body count in the dozens and a professed antipathy to all things amorous, went through a string of girlfriends.

It's not incidental to the #MeToo conversation that TV has spent decades perpetuating the notion that no matter how bad the bad boy, rehabilitation and redemption were right around the corner.

The time is probably perfect for Lifetime's You, an extremely watchable stalker drama with at least peripheral mindfulness of Hollywood's tradition of writing women who get weak at the knees around men who, in any civilized society, would be walking restraining orders or worse. It shouldn't be taken wholly as a negative that after five episodes, I still don't know what to make of You or its tendency to throw provocative ideas on the table only to get distracted by the need or desire for aggressive narrative churn. The breathless pacing of You is what could well make it a juicy guilty pleasure for many viewers, but it falls short of the kind of thoughtfulness that could have made it special.

Adapted by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble from the novel by Caroline Kepnes, You stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, manager of a small bookstore who falls swiftly and somewhat inexplicably in love with customer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a graduate student and aspiring writer with questionable taste in men and friends and general life choices. Love at first sight, romantic comedies have long taught us, isn't just acceptable — it's aspirational. Joe, however, is not a romantic comedy hero. Rather than wooing our heroine through the usual interactions, he takes to social media to learn about Beck (as all her friends call her) and takes to stalking to learn even more about her, using his ill-gotten insight to pursue her in ways that rub Beck's wealthy best friend, Peach (Shay Mitchell, delivering the show's best performance as its most interesting character), and ultra-douchy boyfriend, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci, amusingly transitioning from indie movie dweeb to cable TV heartthrob), the wrong way. They're right to be concerned, because Joe can't distinguish between love and obsession, and he has no boundaries when it comes to his willingness to manipulate his way into Beck's heart. No boundaries. None.

Complicity is the name of the game when it comes to You, which draws its name from the second-person conversation Joe is having in his head with Beck, but also from the conversation the show wants to at least instigate with viewers. It's not a coincidence that two of the drama's biggest stars come from teen-friendly soaps that normalized all manner of romantic toxicity and that the third — that'd be Lail — could have come from a vending machine distributing attractive blondes in the Blake Lively/Ashley Benson vein. We know from films like Notting Hill and You've Got Mail that bookstores are petri dishes for love stories, and from countless movies that Brooklyn and other trendy New York City locations, shot only in a healthy gloaming glow — director Lee Toland Krieger sets a handsome template — are first dates waiting to happen. And we know from real life that cyber-stalking a potential conquest isn't even "stalking" anymore. It's a thing that's practically necessary so that you don't end up going out with a psycho.

Joe is a psycho. But he's an amiable psycho and his internal monologue, which steers the show, is designed to be reasonable, with creepiness around the edges, rather than the reverse. By virtue of his decision to play the role of the "nice guy," he has decided he's more deserving of Beck than any of the men in her sphere. By virtue of the knowledge he's gleaned from her Twitter and Facebook feeds, he's decided he knows her better than she knows herself. Based on what he perceives as his own decency and what he perceives as his love for Beck, Joe has made himself the arbiter of moral behavior in her universe. If you think about it, it's pretty much exactly what Dan Humphrey, Badgley's character in Gossip Girl, did, or what he would have done if Chuck Bass were one of Dan Humphrey's alternate personalities. It's a part that could have been played more interestingly and believably by an actor with a less memorable bone structure, but there's a chill in Badgley's eyes that works nicely, and the producers must have loved the idea of an actor who comes with the baggage of previous roles.

Lail's casting operates in exactly the opposite way. She's familiar without being literally familiar — unless you really loved her brief arc on Once Upon a Time — and so the fun of her performance, in combination with the way the character is written, is that you're constantly projecting the wrong things on her. The Beck that Joe sees, the Beck that her boyfriend Benji sees, the Beck that the audience sees are not exactly the same person. Depending on the scene, you can imagine her as innocent victim or a complicit Jezebel. If Lail's performance feels fuzzy and indecisive, there's a strong chance that's intentional. Joe thinks he's a man of depth and refinement and that his head has been turned by a woman who's unique and special. And just as nothing would offend his sensibilities more than being told he's just a garden-variety predator, it would be no boost to his ego to point out that he has predictably fallen for a rather basic cute blonde with daddy issues.

It's a great starting point for a provocative story, yet after five episodes I keep waiting for You to do something challenging instead of well-executed variations on "Will he get caught?" suspense. The show doesn't ask you to over-empathize with Joe, who seems to be a surprisingly placid sociopath, and that eliminates both "stalker handbook" and "effective character study" from its aspirations. He's the only guy making anything in the show happen, so it's hard to root for Joe's demise. The episode in which Beck claims the POV voiceover for a while does little to enhance her interiority, and so she isn't much of a protagonist either. You'd think that nobody would come away from these episodes rooting for Joe and Beck as a couple, but you'd have thought the same thing about Dexter Morgan and his adoptive sister, so one should never think too highly of the audience and its ability to resist the alleged magnetism of two pretty people making pretty kissy faces at each other.

If anything, You would be more incisive if it were trying harder to make us invest in this relationship, forcing genuine discomfort on viewers. Maybe that's what the writers think they're doing with Joe's friendship with his young neighbor, whose abusive stepfather is the only person who recognizes Joe for who he is. If so, it isn't working. The thing You does most successfully is stoke digital paranoia, reminding viewers that everything they post online establishes a footprint and maybe, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, an ounce of online modesty is worth a pound of not having Dan Humphrey from Gossip Girl stalk you. Unless you're into that sort of thing, which is a confrontational perspective that You isn't quite willing to address.

Part of me wants the show to yell at its audience, "This is the price you pay for watching young adult soap operas wrong!" And I know that You isn't in that same storytelling business. It doesn't have to be as blatant as it is, though. Look at the truly subversive work being done on Killing Eve when it comes to deconstructing the romanticizing of obsession, the allure of turning violence into another fashion accessory and the narrative upheaval that comes from a gender inversion of the bad-boy archetype. There's a conversation that connects these two shows; Killing Eve's take on it is near great, while You settles for interesting and fun.

Cast: Penn Badgley, Elizabeth Lail, Shay Mitchell
Creators: Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble
Based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes

Showrunner: Sera Gamble
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)
Premieres Sept. 9