Lifetime’s brilliant and unsung show You goes to Netflix and it’s hard to stop watching it… even if you’re in the bushes.
Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a bookstore manager who becomes attracted to a patron, an aspiring writer named Guinevere “Beck” Beck (Elizabeth Lail). He begins to follow her, stalking her, planning out methods by which he can become her boyfriend. This only covers episode one, but literally anything else about the show is a spoiler.
Like most of you, I didn’t hear about this show during its original run, but after hearing about it, I had to give it a try and dang, I would never have expected this level out of Lifetime. Granted, I don’t watch Lifetime, so maybe that’s on me.
The first positive of the show is that almost all of the characters are so much deeper than they originally appear. A lot of this is derived from the way in which we are introduced to them. At the beginning of the show, we almost exclusively see things from Joe’s viewpoint, complete with his narration. Joe is presented as a smart man, basically a Hannibal-Lector-esque predator, so we hardly question any of the conclusions and deductions he makes during the first few episodes… which makes it so much more interesting when we get more objective scenes where we find out that he isn’t as omniscient as he thinks and that the stereotypes he thinks that most of the supporting characters fit are not exactly what they turn out to be.
Another positive is that they don’t exactly make Joe the enviable model of villain protagonist/anti-hero that we sometimes see in modern media, with guys wanting to be Don Draper (despite him being miserable for almost all of the series) or, more frighteningly, Dexter. Yes, some people, including some women, apparently, message Penn Badgley talking about how much they want to be, or be with, the character, but for the most part I think the show does go out of the way to make him undesirable. One way they do this is by making him the butt of many of the jokes in the show, ranging from him being massively wrong about his deductions to wildly overestimating some of his abilities and failing at a task he believes he’ll easily complete. It helps that Joe, while monstrous, still has positive traits, like when he is attempting to stop his neighbor from being abused by her boyfriend. By being able to hear his inner motivations, some of the things that he does are given grander, more heroic motivations… right until the show shifts to an objective point of view and we’re reminded that, oh, right, THIS GUY IS HORRIFYING.
The acting is spectacular, pretty much all around, with special credit going to the two leads and Luca Padovan who plays Joe’s young neighbor who is dealing with his mom’s horrible relationship and Natalie Paul who plays his babysitter. The cinematography and direction are both solid. The atmosphere that the show builds around Joe’s stalking conveys the darkness of the topic, while also putting in enough levity to make it tolerable.
The biggest positive, though, is that the show is almost impossible to predict. The writing is spectacular, but it really shines when the series alternates between playing things out how they would in real life and how they would in fiction. Sometimes, Joe succeeds only because the narrative allows him to pull off stunts that should be nearly impossible, but sometimes he fails at things because that’s what would happen in real life. The fact that you’re dealing simultaneously with both fiction and real logics keeps you on your toes. Additionally, the overall arc of the season doesn’t play out in the way that most stories of this kind do.
It helps that the show starts off narrated almost entirely from Joe’s perspective, before shifting to give us other viewpoints, allowing for a little bit of Rashomon-esque recontextualization of encounters, meaning that the narrative can suddenly change a character’s motivations while not invalidating the rest of their behaviors.
Overall, I was blown away by how much I ended up enjoying this series. I can’t wait for season 2. Give it a shot if you can handle a little darkness in your shows.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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