No one said relationships are easy…
This is a (mostly) spoiler-free review of You, which originally aired on Lifetime, but is now available to stream on Netflix.
Here’s the thing you need to know right off the bat: You is divisive. And that’s a feature of its design, not a bug. The story of an obsessive Nice Guy murderer as he tries to will the object of his desire into loving him for the rest of their lives might rub a few folks the wrong way. You might feel the urge to yell, scream, gasp, laugh, and cringe while you’re watching it. You have to make people feel something uncomfortable about the expectations we as a society place upon romance and love in order to make them really think. And that is what You hopes to accomplish in its first season, now available to stream.
The formally-on-Lifetime, now-on-Netflix (and renewed for a season two!) series based on the Caroline Kepnes novel of the same name, is so insane, you’re bound to be riveted and engaged if nothing else. You is a horrifying love letter to all those romantic ideals and expectations that have permeated our society. The series plays with extremes, upending the way we look at relationships and modern dating. Enter: Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), our Nice Guy With Issues protagonist. His is the story of pain and obsession and toxic masculinity. A good white boy with a hard childhood who was raised by – we later learn – a real manipulative SOB. He knows he’s a good guy, he’s a protector. He just wants someone to see him and love him, particularly after being rejected by the love of his life, Candace. The new apple of his eye?
Aspiring, coquettish writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), the personification of every ideal a girl’s “supposed” to be. Beck, as she’s called, is a free-spirited part-time yoga teacher who lives in the 30 Rock-described “bubble,” where attractive people just seem to have everything go their way. She’s got a fantastic apartment (university housing has gotten luxe), a teachers assistant gig, and a bunch of rich friends to help her escape consequences. Including her well-heeled bestie, Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell). And yes, they mean that Salinger, but more on her later.
Beck, like most everyone else on this show, is pretty quickly snuffed out to be sort of insufferable. But that’s the point. She’s a bit careless, selfish, and lets men use her (often to her advantage). She wants the world to gift her her destiny, rather than really try. She’s a writer that never (ever) writes. She says she’s independent, but her rich friends pay for everything and she wants a man to rescue her. She doesn’t have many boundaries, but she does really care and doesn’t seem like a bad person, either. She’s in the middle. Beck exists in the same contradictions we all see or partake in, to some extent or another, when it comes to love – and it’s what gets her snared in Joe’s insanely well-set, and often incredibly lucky, trap.
A fact that will come as no surprise to TV viewers who know the name of its executive producer, Sera Gamble. Also heading up Syfy’s equally-as-subversive series, The Magicians, Gamble is a master craftsman of big, campy stories with outrageous consequences, grounded in excellent writing and pinpoint plotting. She walks the walk and talks the talk. And her strengths as a writer/showrunner are on vivid display in the story of Beck and Dan Humphries – erm, sorry, Joe. (But seriously, it’s so fun to pretend this is what happened to Dan after Gossip Girl.) Throughout the season, we are forced to face the worst aspects of our culture’s obsession with traditional gender roles and masculine authority writ soapily fantastical. And it is a whole entire amusement park worth of rides to watch, playing with cliches to make you, the viewer, cringe, scream, laugh, and question it all, and your own part in the system of cultural romantic expectations, in a way that is pitch-perfect for the era.
Mostly because Badgley is doing some of his best, most unhinged work in the series. His charming nature and playful face are the perfect, twisted mask for the “Nice Guy With Control Issues” lurking underneath. And Joe’s inner monologue frames the series in a way that shows just how malcontented a guy he really is despite his warm smile and cool demeanor, and how his need for control and unresolved issues make Beck a perfect target for his affections. The show is as manipulative as Joe himself – and sometimes Peach – and you just can’t look away, no matter how much you’re squirming with anxiety. Because sometimes you just want to watch something that throws you into the most insane situations, moves at an unthinkable pace, takes so many big, they-wouldn’t-oh-wait-they-did-that swings, and makes you physically react in equal measure. You’s first season is something subversive, but also a majority soapy – because who doesn’t love a messy bench that loves drama?
Speaking of: let’s get back to Peach. Campy, smart, subversive, and often armed with the best lines of the show, Shay Mitchell steals nearly every scene she’s in. Her revealed obsession with Beck turns Peach and Joe’s dynamic into a sociopathic game of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Like Single White Female times everybody. (Seriously: why do so many stalkers love Beck?) Like most everyone else on the show, Peach’s overcompensating ego and walking wounded demeanor is purposefully unlikeable, and her character wields her wealth and power as a most effective shield. And true to form, Beck yields. And what results is delightfully insane, building up to Peach’s last weekend at the Salinger Greenwich estate. (I had to watch it over the course of two days, I was truly so stressed and anxious.) Because sometimes you just want to watch something absolutely bonkers. That leans in and goes there. That stresses you out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There can be an odd catharsis found in seeing this stuff play out in a fake story. So long as you’re not one of those folks online tweeting about being in love with, and rooting for, an actual murderer.