In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, Lifetime
In the UK: Netflix. No airdate yet
One of the accusations against the #MeToo movement is that it’s ruining creativity. “Think of all the talented men whose lives are being destroyed and who can no longer make works of creative genius.” The obvious rejoinder is to think of all the talented women whose lives have already been destroyed and who never got to make their works of creative genius.
However, You offers a subtly different benefit of #MeToo – it can provide fresh, creative looks at otherwise tired and hackneyed concepts. On the face of it, You is a charming but otherwise tedious romance. Joe Goldberg (Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley) is a witty, charming book shop manager looking for the girl of his dreams. He’s been burned before, though, so he has to be careful about who he risks his heart on.
Then, one day, into his shop walks graduate student and aspiring poet Guinevere Beck (Once Upon A Time‘s Elizabeth Lail), they flirt, they hit it off and he wonders if she’s the one. If only she didn’t already have a really unreliable, useless boyfriend (Lou Taylor Pucci). Then, after one terrible night at a poetry recital, Beck is so drunk and sad that she drops her phone on the subway tracks and falls in front of her train. But coincidentally, who should be there to rescue her but Goldberg? It’s like Fate is trying to tell them both something.
Because Goldberg is actually a stalker – and quite a dangerous one at that. He knows how to hack social media to find out your interests and to use geolocation tags in photos to find out where you live. He’s sympathetic and smart enough to con himself into your apartment when the workmen are there, and he can palm your phone when you’re least expecting it.
All while thinking he’s the hero of the piece as he slams a hammer into a perceived wrong-doer’s head, just to protect you from anyone who would hurt you. What wouldn’t a hero do in the name of love?
The show is actually a very clever examination of male entitlement. Told almost entirely from Badgley’s viewpoint – because even when Lail thinks she’s alone, she’s not – the show depicts how men (#NotAllMen) can romanticise women and create a two-dimensional view of them divorced from reality, but also feel they’re entitled to that woman’s affections if they do things for them. This isn’t a caricature of a stalker in the style of Criminal Minds, but a reasonably nuanced psychological examination of a man who’d do anything for love, the book-loving, seemingly sympathetic and kind Joe Goldberg being just a couple of millimetres away from the equally literate, witty, working class Dan Humphrey of Gossip Girl.
At the same time, You also deconstructs the tropes of romantic comedies and movies, Badgley himself reminding viewers in voice-over that they might have seen a hero in a similar position to his as he hides behind a shower curtain in Lail’s apartment, hoping not to be discovered as water cascades down onto him. In an era when entitled men who try to woo back uninterested women are still heralded as heart-broken romantic heroes rather than dangerous, no matter how inappropriate or abusive their behaviour, the juxtaposition of Badgley’s self-perception and his terrifying behaviour shows that it’s just the flip-side of the Say Anything coin.
The show presents a dichotomy for Lail. While You‘s attention is focused on her through Badgley, we never hear her thoughts, only his, ironically seeming to make the show an exemplar of the male gaze. Yet even while Badgley is coming up with plausible explanations for Lail’s behaviour that fit into his personal narrative, we’re getting to see a more three-dimensional side of her, creeping through his construct. While Pucci is providing one explanation (“She’s a gold digger… she’ll sleep with anyone to get what she wants”) and Badgley is developing his own (Lail is a princess who needs his white knight to protect her), Lail is having to navigate all these narrative being constructed for her by men, simply so she can become a poet – and perhaps meet a good, smart guy along the way. She’s not an angel or a demon, virgin or whore, but a three-dimensional woman trying to do her best in a patriarchal world.
Badgley is brilliantly cast here. He’s the kind of guy any smart woman would want as a boyfriend and Gamble’s scripts give him delightfully crunchy dialogue to play with. Yet he’s able to intimate an occasional coldness and a flaring of anger that hint at the darkness beneath his surface.
Meanwhile, Lail is dazzling, the kind of woman any nerdy guy would fall for, a suitably blank canvas that they can paint their own ideas onto, while still managing to provide depth for anyone willing to look.
Were it not for his whole “imprisoning people in cages and murdering”, you’d be dying for the two to get together. Indeed, part of the show’s cleverness is that it fits the standard rom-com plotting so closely, you still want them to get together through conditioned reflex, even knowing what you do about Badgley.
It’s not entirely flawless. There are too many coincidences and too many people being too trusting. But You‘s a really enjoyable, clever romantic thriller with a real socio-political subtext that means you should definitely give a try.