He is watching her. Standing on a subway platform in New York City, it’s just him, her, and a homeless guy who’s paying no attention. It’s far too early in the morning. She’s been drinking. And he knows this because tonight isn’t the first time he’s watched her. But when she drunkenly falls onto the tracks, he’ll be there to save her. He’ll be her knight in shining armor — at least until the end of the night… when he steals her phone.
Based on the 2014 novel by Caroline Kepnes, YOU tells the story of Joe (Penn Badgley), a bookstore worker who becomes so infatuated with a girl named Beck (Elizabeth Lail) that he starts to stalk her. But in a world where Googling a potential love interest seems like due diligence, how far is too far? That’s the question Kepnes posed in the book, and it’s the same question that showrunner Sera Gamble will ask the audience on the new Lifetime series of the same name, premiering Sept. 9. “Joe is not so different than many of us,” Gamble tells EW. “If you’re a bit of a romantic, you might believe in bending the rules in ways that are more socially acceptable, doing a little light social media stalking. It’s just that Joe takes everything so much further.”
The result is a twisted tale that fluctuates between a love story and any woman’s nightmare. Needless to say, finding an actor who could be charming one minute and scary the next was critical for the series. The answer? Gossip Girl himself, Penn Badgley. “My initial reaction [to the part] was ‘really interested but highly conflicted,’” Badgley says. “I knew I would be conflicted about the role from day one through the last day — and that’s why they thought I would be good for it, because I’m not psyched to play somebody of this nature.” What that nature is will be revealed over the course of the first season’s 10 episodes as Joe follows Beck, a twentysomething poet played by relative newcomer Lail (Once Upon a Time). “He is very different from the other mindless men in her life,” Lail says. “I actually think he’s much closer to the kind of guy that she would be happy with, except for the whole stalker element.”
That’s the thing about Joe. He’s not ALL bad. “I found myself intermittently rooting for [Joe and Beck] until almost the very last page,” Gamble says of her experience reading the book. “I was fully aware that it was not in line with my feminist view of the world, but what it taps into is something that is very deeply ingrained in me and I think a lot of people in our culture, which is a deep belief in the love story.” The very idea that viewers could find themselves on Team Joe, if you will, is why Badgley refers to the show as a “social experiment.” It’s also the thing Kepnes — who wrote episode 8 — wanted to make sure translated to the screen. “It’s really diving into that idea of: Can love fix people and does it really triumph over everything,” Kepnes says.
Joe certainly thinks it does. Or perhaps more accurately, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make damn sure that love triumphs over everything. And along the way, viewers are listening to his every thought — the many ways he allows love to justify his actions. With the entirety of the novel being written in second person, the show (which has already been renewed for a second season) incorporates his thoughts through the use of voice-over. “You are inside Joe’s head,” Gamble says. “It felt exhilarating to be inside the mind of someone who was being completely honest about his true thoughts.”
But this time around, viewers aren’t just inside Joe’s head. When the series premieres, it’s the audience that becomes the ultimate watcher. As Joe is standing on that subway platform, it’s not just him, her, and a homeless guy who’s paying no attention. You are there too. He is watching her, and you are watching him.
Joe would hate it.