Invoking the best qualities of David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Mary Harron’s adaptation of “American Psycho,” this twisted don’t-call-it-a-love-story-except-it-kinda-is juxtaposes the idea of love as glamorized by the romance industrial complex with its dark side.
Which is to say, this is a show about a guy who doesn’t know the difference between obsession and romance, operating in a world which often has the same problem. Based on the book by Caroline Kepnes, “You” is seen through the eyes of Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), who is on the surface a “nice guy” working as a bookshop manager in New York. When the beautiful and smart Genevieve Beck (Elizabeth Lail) comes into his shop, the pair seem to form the beginning of a connection. Of course, most meet-cutes aren’t followed by aggressive stalking — first of the cyber kind, followed by actually hovering outside her house.
There’s no mystery as to Joe’s motives, because his voice-over is ever-present, not just explaining his actions but rationalizing them. He’s not stalking her, you see — he just needs to know a little more about her so that he doesn’t get hurt. And then he needs to help make sure that she doesn’t get hurt by the people in her life, or by her own choices… and he’s not afraid to do what it takes to ensure that.
This show does not play in the realm of subtlety, but doing so would be a terrible idea, because the fact of the matter is that in many ways, Joe does seem like the kind of guy girls dream of finding. And that’s what makes “You” such a bold take on tropes that some romcoms might cast in an adorable light, with romantic language about how Joe is the only one who really sees this girl for who she really is (the stuff of grand third-act declarations of love), coupled with the grim reality of what Joe is doing. Joe sometimes sounds like a good guy. But that’s how the not-great guys fool you.
While this premise on its own would be interesting, creators Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble have paired it with soap opera-level plotting that delivers an unrelenting number of twists. To borrow a line from IndieWire’s Steve Greene, “‘You’ is measured not in episodes, but in turns,” and even when these twists push into the realm of the outlandish, each development indicates a firm commitment on this show’s part to not ever, ever be boring.
In the first five episodes made available to critics, this commitment becomes addictive. Thanks initially to Joe’s cyberstalking but also to the show’s focus on character, Beck (she prefers to go by her last name) becomes a fully developed character with a deep backstory and plenty of quirks that draw her out of the realm of cliche, and while we get to see plenty of Joe’s dark side, we also get glimpses of what’s made him that way, and the man he could maybe even be one day, freed of his demons.
Cast-wise, Badgley finds the perfect balance of just-off-enough charm to sell both Joe’s creepiest tendencies as well as why Beck might find this stranger intriguing enough to consider, once their engagement escalates. Meanwhile, Lail might have Disney princess appeal (prior to “You,” she, in fact, played Princess Anna on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”) but she brings a raw quality to Beck as a person, creating a character whose dreams and desires are balanced with compelling, all-too-real flaws.
While we’re thoroughly embedded in Joe’s point of view from the beginning, the writing and Badgley’s performance do just enough to ensure that it’s not a comfortable experience, even as we get to know him more and more. (There might be a touch too much voice-over, but that’s always a difficult equation to balance, and the feeling of excess has more to do with the way episodes flow than with it feeling like a narrative crutch for the writers.) Also, this may be considered a minor spoiler, but Beck’s point of view does enter the equation at a certain point, and that goes a long way towards ensuring that both characters feel well-balanced within the narrative.
It speaks to the thing that’s all too true in life: the hero of a story might, from a different perspective, really be a villain. The more we get to know about Joe, the more we know to be afraid of him, but we also see where he’s coming from. It’s dangerous… but sometimes, danger can be an exciting thing. It’s all too easy to get hooked.
“You” premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.