When Lifetime premiered UnREAL, the general reaction was surprise — surprise that Lifetime actually aired a good, addictive, and smart series as opposed to the usual bad movies about women in peril. When UnREAL began a steady decline that eventually landed its convoluted final season on Hulu rather than its original network … well, that felt more like the Lifetime we once knew. Lifetime’s newest scripted drama, You (also annoyingly-stylized, as YOU, but let’s ignore that) is also sure to surprise. It’s far better than you’d assume and infinitely more watchable than a number of heavily-hyped dramas this fall.
You stars Penn Badgley as a literature-obsessed lonely boy with a disturbing fixation on a pretty blonde. Sound familiar? But You has darker intentions than Gossip Girl; it’s not about a teen boy with an intense crush but about an adult stalker with a violent obsession. When Joe (Badgley) first meets Beck (Elizabeth Lail) at the bookstore he manages, he’s immediately drawn to her — and he also immediately displays some warning signs. He falls down a rabbit hole of investigating her social media (her username is @BeckdelTest, which is both hilarious and perfect) and it isn’t long before he’s lurking outside of her apartment, spying on her, stalking her around the city.
You introduces this twist the way it introduces every twist: quickly and gleefully. And trust me, there are plenty of twists and turns within the first five episodes, many of which are predictable but all of which manage to be surprisingly entertaining. If nothing else, You knows how to keep viewers’ attention. It’s welcome: the summer gave us no shortage of slow series that demand patience, but You races full speed ahead, fitting a season’s worth of stunners in just a few episodes. Are all the developments good? Not in the least! Are they all juicy enough to be compulsively watchable? Absolutely. So much so that I’m reluctant to share any more details about the episodes.
There are times when You seems to be taking the “throw in so many plots that viewers won’t mind the bad ones” approach and, it kinda works. The series is packed: side stories about a lecherous professor in Beck’s MFA program, a neighbor who sees through Joe’s “nice guy” routine, a handful of Beck’s elite and wealthy friends (one of whom knows something isn’t right), a sketchy and druggie on-again/off-again boyfriend Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) who stands in Joe’s way, and so on.
In between the darker plots and the overall dangerous nature of Joe’s character, there’s plenty of humor (both intentional and otherwise) weaved in. How can you not love a character named Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell) who yes, is related to the reclusive author and yes, has dated James Franco? Many of the college scenes will be uncomfortably familiar if you’ve ever been in a creative writing class — I nearly did a spit-take at one writer’s response when they’re compared to Raymond Carver. Characters say things like “social media is the next great genocide” or “he’s been clean since 9/11” without an ounce of irony and, honestly, it’s pretty great! There’s a sex scene so awkward I shrieked; a plot twist so insane I started texting other critics because I needed to discuss it. You obviously shares some DNA with Gossip Girl, and I suspect the live-tweeting and next-morning group chats will be just as fun.
All of this helps to make You deliciously watchable — “guilty pleasure” is the term that will be most associated with it — but You is also, at times, legitimately good television. It smartly skewers rom-com tropes and the image of the “nice guy.” We’re aware of Joe’s horrible, violent thoughts and actions — he details them casually, almost unknowingly, in his voiceover — but the series plays around with meet-cutes (Joe and Beck essentially have two) and often films Beck with the glowing close-ups of romantic-comedy heroines. (And in one scene, when Joe is caught in a jam, he likens himself to a rom-com lead.) Joe considers himself the “nice” guy in Beck’s life, the one who is going to “protect” her and keep her “safe” from all the horrible men out there — would you ever believe that he considers himself a feminist? It’s effective not only because we know the truth, but because the show also toys with Joe’s image. He befriends a neighbor boy whose mother has an abusive boyfriend; in any other show, this would be heartwarming but here, it just puts us on edge.
You is also dripping with meta-commentary and irony, the sort designed to make you groan at your screen — like when Joe playfully calls Beck a “stalker” or watches Beck through her giant, curtainless windows and thinks, “It’s like you’ve never seen a horror movie.” Some of it is cheesy, but it’s all fitting with You’s overall tone.
Of course, You stumbles a lot — especially when it’s trying to make grand statements about social media and privacy, and it’s unclear what we’re supposed to take seriously. Beck could use more development beyond a handful of her own secrets. Ditto all of her friends, who are mostly interchangeable with the exception of Peach Salinger (please always use her full name to get the full breadth of the absurdity). It’s certainly going to elicit a lot of romanticization of a character like Joe — which isn’t necessarily the series’ fault, and the cast and creators are doing their best to nip that in the bud while on the press circuit, but it’s still going to be gross. You can also be predictable, thoughtless, and seemingly without a plan for the next episode (though it is based on Caroline Kepnes’ book of the same name, which I now can’t wait to read). I’m sure Joe’s voiceover will become grating to some, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that Badgley nails the unassuming creepiness, and knows how to use his charm to hide the darkness.