Privacy. We say we want it, yet we’re constantly giving it all away: Everything we’re thinking, wearing, eating, the who-what-why of our daily lives, available at all hours to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection. Pics or it didn’t happen.
In Lifetime’s snappy new thriller YOU (premiering Sept. 9 at 10 p.m.), one woman’s desire to be seen attracts the worst kind of male gaze possible: a charming sociopath with above-average tech skills and a raging savior complex. When aspiring poet Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) have the cutest of meet-cutes at the New York City bookstore where he works, naturally the first thing he does after she walks out the door is Google her name. But this is no dutiful millennial ritual: Joe’s internet sleuthing slippery-slopes quickly into full-on stalking, as he begins lurking outside Beck’s apartment, hacking into her phone, and trailing her as she hits the clubs with her far more financially stable friends Peach (Shay Mitchell), Lynn (Nicole Kang), and Annika (Kathryn Gallagher).
Joe’s obsession soon becomes dangerous — unbeknownst to Beck, that is; she’s too busy trying to find time to write poetry while working as a teacher’s assistant and fending off the advances of her lecherous MFA advisor. The suspense of this setup gives YOU an easy momentum from the beginning, as we wait with rising anxiety for Beck to discover what we already know: Joe is a class-A nutjob.
That kind of yell-at-the-screen dramatic irony can only take a show so far, and the team behind YOU — including executive producer Sera Gamble (Supernatural) and author Caroline Kepnes, who wrote the 2014 best-seller the show is based on — layer the first five episodes with increasingly complex dynamics. Joe isn’t all bad: He befriends and mentors a neighbor kid (Luca Padovan) whose mom has an abusive live-in boyfriend. And Beck isn’t an entirely innocent victim: She’s deceptive in her own right, affected, and almost aggressively careless about privacy settings and passwords. Joe sees this as an invitation (“Every account set to public — you want to be seen, heard, known”), and this sentiment doesn’t just apply to Beck; YOU seeks to remind us that we are culpable, to various degrees, in creating our culture’s assault on solitude.
The inconvenient contrast between fantasy and reality is a running theme in YOU, which skillfully exploits rom-com clichés while simultaneously deflating them with a crisp slap of comic brutality. (No spoilers, but the third episode features a particularly cringe-worthy sex scene.) And though YOU employs some convenient thriller tropes, it pokes fun at itself for doing so, as when Joe spies Beck standing by the “big, naked windows” of her ground-floor apartment, wearing only a towel. “Jesus, it’s like you’ve never seen a horror movie,” he says with a sigh.
Kepnes’ novel was written in second person, a format YOU preserves by delivering Joe’s thoughts through extensive voice-over. It’s a device that could easily become grating, but Badgley shines as YOU’s very unreliable narrator. The 31-year-old actor effortlessly balances Joe’s charm and humor with his more sinister qualities, like extreme control issues and occasional bouts of explosive rage. Badgley — who spent six seasons as Gossip Girl’s tiresome Dan Humphrey — delivers such a confident, winning performance that it allows viewers to root for Joe as he, say, hides out in Beck’s shower. (“I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that guys like me are always getting in jams like this.”) Lail, meanwhile, pulls off an equally tricky task embodying both Becks — the soft-focus goddess Joe imagines and the everyday screw-up she is.
YOU should fit in quite well on Lifetime; it’s scheduled on Sundays after the network’s popular original movies, many of which have a similar theme: My Dream Man Turned Out to Be a Nightmare — Ugh! Scary and soapy and funny and tense, YOU is a lot like social media itself: perhaps not the most edifying way to spend your time, but very, very hard to quit. B+