Lifetime’s new psychological thriller YOU presents an interesting conundrum. In this day of Me Too and Time’s Up and people (mostly men) possibly being held accountable for their inappropriate, dangerous and criminal behavior, do we really need a show told from the point-of-view of a an inappropriate, dangerous male criminal, especially one who is made out to be as charming as possible?
The easy answer is no, we don’t. We don’t need some love story based on a stalker who thinks all his stalkee needs “someone to save [her].” Next!
The more complicated answer is that’s not the whole picture of what is going on with YOU, but the show takes awhile to get there and may possibly have turned off a lot of viewers by the time it does.
YOU is based on a book by Caroline Kepnes, and developed by super-producer Greg Berlanti (the many shows of the Arrowverse) and The Magicians’ Sera Gamble. Without getting too spoilery, the book definitely takes some interesting turns with several of its main characters: the aforementioned stalker, a bookstore manager named Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley); the object of his alarming affections, bookstore customer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail); and Beck’s toxic BFF Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell). It makes no pretensions about Joe. He doesn’t start out as a good guy who is slowly revealed to be a creep. He starts out as a borderline psychopath who gets worse as the book goes on — though only the audience knows that. But the tables are turned a bit when it turns out neither Beck nor Peach is exactly what they appear to be either.
So while there is that surprising aspect to the plot, viewers are going to have to wait for at least the halfway point of the season for that plot to thicken. And with the television landscape as highly populated as it is, that may be asking too much.
There are two things working in YOU’s favor, though, that might make it worthwhile to hang in there. First, it has some interesting things to say about dating in the age of social media. The show paints a frightening picture of just how much information people put out into the void and how easily it can be used against them, but it does so by weaving it seamlessly into the plot, not hitting us over the head with “social media is the root of all evil” lessons.
Secondly, enough cannot be said about the performances of Badgley and Mitchell as the two people fighting for Beck’s attention. Mitchell is particularly fun playing a cruel, scheming socialite; if you were a fan of hers on Pretty Little Liars (as I was), you already know she can act. But this role is a delicious departure from the sweet Emily Fields of Rosewood, PA.
Badgley, on the other hand, is tasked with doing a lot of voiceover work and reaction-shot acting, and he pulls it off fairly well. He also infuses a horrible person with humor and charm, which is no easy feat. In fact, he’s almost too charming — the one big thing the show is missing from the book is that Joe isn’t scary enough. The disconcerting juxtaposition when reading the book is how you find yourself rooting for this creepy murderer and then you find yourself repulsed that you like him so much.
The show would certainly benefit by depicting a little more of Joe’s dark side so as to truly evoke the visceral love-hate response to him that the book does. Badgley has the charming part covered; what I want is more danger. And to that end, it’s unfortunate that they writers add a side plot of Joe looking after a neglected young boy who lives next door to him, because it’s gilding the lily. We get it, he’s charming and likable. Could we maybe also remember that he’s a murdering psychopath and lean into that a little bit sometimes? This is a psychological thriller, after all, not a rom-com.
YOU has an intriguing premise, though it will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. Through five episodes, though, it’s a slick ride so far. If the show stays close to the book, it will also kick things into high gear in the back half of the season — if viewers can wait around that long.
You premieres Sunday, September 9th at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.