Boy meets girl. Boy stalks girl. Boy kills everyone girl’s close to. Boy and girl live happily ever after? You sort of hope so.
Thus is the twisted logic of romance in the Lifetime television series You, now streaming on Netflix. Adapted from Caroline Kepnes’s novel of the same name, You exploits the manipulative tropes of the rom-com genre to make you root for love against all your better instincts and even your morality. It’s a guilty pleasure par excellence because you feel guilty the whole time.
The boy is Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), and we spend much of the season in his head, privy to his internal dialogue, his blinkered reasoning, and his endearing desperation. Rather than turning from his crimes in revulsion and siding with the karmic tide of retribution surely awaiting him, the show keeps the viewers firmly in Joe’s demented little corner, peppering his character with just enough redemptive acts of genuine kindness to rationalize our feelings of affection for this sick puppy.
The show is no less seductive for not being particularly sly. Like the generous use of soft-focus that You employs in its cinematography, the moral background is blurred, while the amorous object is the only thing clearly in frame. The show is so blatant in its approach, and so charming in its deviousness, that ethical fortitude seems merely collateral damage to the overall suspension of disbelief. It’s part of the fun: feeling the unsubtle ways the point of view asks the audience to oscillate between wanting Joe to get his comeuppance and wanting Joe to get the girl.
The girl is Guinevere Beck, or just Beck (Elizabeth Lail), and for a brief moment You teases with allowing the viewer inside her head too. But it’s a short-lived privilege, just enough to draw attention to how our impressions of anyone are never a realistic facsimile to the actual thoughts inside his or her head.
Tenuous identification is the name of the game in You. The “you” is Beck: how Joe perceives her, reads and misreads her, and positions her as the object of his obsession. The “you” is Joe: how we relate to him, simultaneously and contradictorily carried along in his desires while being repulsed by his actions. The “you” is us, the viewers: how we reconcile our identification with Joe and our honest concern for all the people he comes in contact with, especially Beck.
These tensions keep us enthralled. When You premiered on the Lifetime network in September in weekly installments, it struggled to connect with audiences. But, since coming to Netflix in late December, it has proved itself the perfectly bingeable recipe. The writing places Joe in consistently tight situations, usually initiated by his own delusional proclivity for stalking, where the imminent revelation of his crime threatens to spoil the bliss of his romance. Meanwhile, we are strangely, doubly, dubiously invested. Both outcomes — either Joe getting Beck or Joe getting arrested — feel equally desirable and detestable, and the thought of either occurring just can’t help but sadden us a little. We keep watching to see which side of our fractured hearts will win out: The side that beats for justice? Or the side that beats for romance everlasting? My, what sick saps we all are!
In light of You’s impressive run on Netflix so far, a second season has already been ordered, and this time it will be going straight to the streaming service. For those viewers who just can’t wait to see where this psychotically outrageous romance will lead, Caroline Kepnes’s follow-up novel, Hidden Bodies, is waiting at a bookstore near you … but maybe don’t purchase it with a credit card. After the first episode, you’ll understand why.
You can be streamed on Netflix.