You brings a compelling, twisty new thriller to Lifetime, and although it might be flawed it’s undeniably arresting television.
Based on the book of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, Lifetime’s strange new thriller You follows Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a handsome and charming bookshop manager in New York who just so happens to be a deranged stalker and a grim torturer of romantic rivals. You know the type.
Perhaps you don’t. Joe is one of a new breed of always-online obsessives who has mastered the subtle art of learning everything about his prey from her public social media profiles. And he chastises her for those bad online habits in a persistent voiceover that explains and rationalises Joe’s increasingly extreme behaviour – this, you see, is romantic. He cares about Genevieve Beck (Elizabeth Lail), the pretty young woman who came into his store on the hunt for challenging literature. He knows she’s liable to get hurt by her own choices and by the people in her life who don’t really love her. But not Joe. Joe knows what’s best.
Perhaps the cleverest thing that You does is repurpose traditionally romantic language and behaviour for nefarious purposes. Joe is, in many ways, an ideal catch; he’s handsome, smart, charming, well-read. That he happens to be a stalker is a typically sinister quirk in genre fiction, but here his own explanatory voiceover gives his creepy tendencies a grim logic. You get the sense in this first episode that he truly believes what he’s doing is a grand romantic gesture; that he’s looking out for this woman’s best interests because she’s vulnerable to manipulation and terrified of not becoming what she dreamed she might be.
Badgley’s performance is key here – he has found a tone that suits the material, and even though there might be a little too much of his narration, it isn’t so much that the show’s soapy plotting suffers. And that’s he so seemingly switched-on and caring in other areas of his life means that Beck’s (she goes by her last name) attraction to him doesn’t feel contrived. To her credit, Lail hints at a deeper, more layered character than the prim exterior suggests, and I can always get behind a mutual distrust of people who enjoy Dan Brown novels.
You might not be perfect, but I can’t imagine it ever being boring, which in some ways matters more than anything else. The issue will be how long the premise can be sustained, and how outlandish it might get on the way to its conclusion, but if any show can survive some nutty twists and turns, I’m willing to bet it’s this one.