You Review, Season 1
By Doreen SheridanJanuary 28, 2020
Let’s be very clear here: Joe Goldberg is a bad guy. It doesn’t matter that he’s really good-looking, as played by Penn Badgley in what one could say is the natural evolution of his career from playing part-time creeper Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl, another show adapted from a popular book series. Full disclosure: I loved the Gossip Girl books with all my heart and thus hated the (often indifferently acted) TV show. Given that history, I didn’t give a lot of thought to watching this small-screen adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ bestselling novel till a recent interview with Mr. Badgley himself, where he’s basically begging people to stop liking the character he plays. This naturally piqued my curiosity, so I decided to check out both.
Ms. Kepnes’ novel is told from the perspective of its unreliable narrator, Joe, who meets Guinevere Beck when she walks into his New York City bookstore one day and strikes up a flirtation with him. He then proceeds to do a lot of the questionable things guys in romantic comedies do in order to win their lady loves, and then pushes even further, turning into a full-blown stalker and serial killer in his pursuit of Beck, as she prefers to be known. The book is of a piece with the trend in recent years of popular novels featuring obsessive relationships—often female friendships—where social media is almost an accessory to the crimes. It stands as a warning on the dangers of information overshare and not securing one’s privacy, and was an unsurprising candidate for television adaptation by the Lifetime channel, where movies warning young women of the hazards of strange men figure prominently in the programming.
But then Netflix took over, and I wasn’t sure what to expect when I clicked on the show labeled “Dark. Slick. Psychological Thriller.” What I certainly did not expect was for this show to be absolutely hysterical. I laughed out loud watching it more times than I do with popular sitcoms, and not because I was laughing at the show. You’s creators decided to lean in hard on the romantic comedy underpinnings of Joe’s story, and with sharp writing, direction, and the cast’s pitch-perfect comedic timing (in addition to their overall excellent acting,) this turned out to be the most hilarious thing I’ve watched so far this year.
Yes, Joe is a handsome, charming white guy; yes, he looks out for the kid in the bad situation next door. But he is also a serial killer.
This actually worried me. There’s absolutely nothing in the marketing to indicate that You is supposed to be funny, so I convinced my best friend (a man) and my lovely assistant Karin (a woman) to watch it with me. They both agreed that I’m not a sociopath and that this is a really funny show, even if my best friend grimaced through his laughter a lot more than either Karin or I did.
That resolved, I could go back to reviewing. The series isn’t a perfect adaptation of the book, though Ms. Kepnes is a consultant and wrote an episode in this first season. One of the most significant changes lies in the introduction of Joe’s neighbors, the junkie nurse Claudia with her precocious son Paco and her abusive boyfriend Ron. Their harrowing subplot adds emotional heft and complex realism to the show, especially since Joe’s relationship with Paco is one of the most humanizing things about him.
And that, of course, is part of the reason why Mr. Badgley has to publicly plead with people not to excuse or, worse, romanticize Joe. Yes, Joe is a handsome, charming white guy; yes, he looks out for the kid in the bad situation next door. But he is also a serial killer. Granted, this only happens as the series progresses and yes, to a certain extent, it’s easy to understand the impulse to wish that you, like Beck, had an avenging angel who would get rid of the toxic people in your life that you don’t know how to handle yourself (or at the very least pep talk you into standing up for yourself against bullies you’re not as emotionally vulnerable to). And yes, it’s nice to have a guy who pays attention to your social media in an effort to find out about your likes and needs, a guy who listens to and cares about you. Apart from the stalking and the murdering—which should be complete deal-breakers for anyone with a shred of self-respect—Joe is actually a lot nicer to Beck than at least seventy percent of the people in her life.
This is the genius of You, and a large part of its popularity: it shows how awful modern relationships can be and how even a villain like Joe can seem like a better alternative to the self-absorbed weirdos out there, simply by being considerate of Beck’s interests and desires. The show’s creators, Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, watched a lot of romantic comedies in the lead up to filming, and were unafraid to use their own show to critique these movies’ toxic social mores, in large part by calling out all the abusive romantic leads who preceded Joe in the cultural zeitgeist. On the one hand, their adoption of the genre’s framing techniques really drives home how a perfect-seeming romance can hide an obsessive, hideous core, in the same way that a carefully built nice-guy facade can overlay a monstrous personality. On the other, certain viewers, conditioned in exactly the wrong ways by public discourse and private pain, wind up confusing Joe for an actual hero.
Unfortunately for Joe and Beck’s relationship, she does not share the opinions of those viewers. Despite her bouts of drama and self-absorption, even she knows that a man willing to stalk and kill to woo and keep her is not a man worth having. Most importantly, she understands that the threat of violence is easily transferred. Joe’s motivations, as with any serial killer’s, are ultimately all about himself.
Which isn’t to say he isn’t human: we’re all selfish to a certain degree, and understanding and forgiving that in others isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But understanding where the line lies between healthy choices and destructive ones, a line that Joe clearly does not comprehend, is an important part of navigating our modern world, with its very valid concerns and conversations regarding agency and privacy and rights. You does a mind-bogglingly terrific job of examining all these issues and more with wit and heart and thrills aplenty. The ending of the ten-episode season does differ significantly from the book, and it’s partly because of this that I can’t wait to dive into the sequels for both.
*Images courtesy of Lifetime