How fast does it take for something to become a cultural phenomenon? With Netflix’s weekly Friday 3 a.m. dropping of shows, I think the most culturally appropriate answer is: a weekend. Note there are some spoilers.
“You” was on my radar from the moment it premiered on Lifetime last September. Critics called it “vicious,” “delicious” and “extremely watchable.” Lifetime opted not to pick up “You” for a second season. Netflix did.
When the show aired on Lifetime, it was never able to reach a million viewers for an episode. Now, Netflix boasts that “You” reached 40 million viewers within the first four weeks it was on Netflix. That’s a big deal. After seeing many of my friends rave about the show, I decided to finally give in and try it for myself.
“You” is a major success because it knows precisely what it is right away. The show follows Joe Goldberg, a serial killer in the making with a charming disposition. It’s like “Dexter” mixed with “Younger.” Joe is stalking Guinevere Beck. Beck’s a struggling writer who writes sad poems about her sad life that actually isn’t sad. She just has a lot of feelings. Beck does not know she is being stalked.
The series is addictive because its plot is simple and the characters are likeable. The two leads, on paper, are not people the audience would usually root for. On screen, the audience relates to their struggles. While Joe is the villain of the story, the audience feels bad for him and for what he’s went through. He lost two parents and was then raised by a physically and mentally abusive foster parent. He never had the luxury of someone who loved him for who he was. Beck is a broke graduate student struggling to be successful. She posts beautiful pictures on Instagram, but it’s a façade. Her character is initially written broadly, so the audience has little reason to dislike her.
Joe and Beck eventually develop a relationship. While Joe isn’t stalking Beck or the people involved in Beck’s life, he is covering up his stalking. Joe doesn’t kill people for fun – he kills people for what he sees as necessity. For instance, Beck’s on-and-off again fling Benji is not innocent at all. He’s an addict. He doesn’t need rehabilitation; he needs death. Clearly, Joe’s logic does not make sense; the problem is that sometimes it does.
Joe is the narrator of the show. Most of what happens is seen through Joe’s lens. While Joe’s logic does not always make sense, it often does. It’s easy to forget that he’s a killer. In a better show, that would be the show’s greatest strength. In this show, it’s a weakness.
Joe is a psychopath, but if you do a quick search of “You” on Twitter, you’d find many people fetishizing his character. There’s a long history of people romanticizing murderers from Ted Bundy to Charles Manson. Many people believe that they can be the one to “fix” these tortured souls. It doesn’t help that in “You,” sometimes Joe is a genuinely great guy. His 12-year-old neighbor Paco is constantly abused by his mother’s boyfriend. Joe sees Paco as his little protégé, and he gives him new books to read. He is Paco’s only friend.
This is not the behavior that someone would expect from a psychopath. Because Joe has many moments of being a good guy, some viewers desire Joe instead of being disgusted with Joe. A good show has its audience empathize with a charismatic villain, but a better show does not get lured into the villain’s trap.
“You” reminds me of a better show I recently watched: “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” The show was not about Gianni Versace’s life; it was about his murderer Andrew Cunanan. Cunanan is portrayed a lot like Joe. He’s charismatic, likeable, and manipulative.
The difference with that show is that no one is questioning whether Cunanan can be saved. I can’t imagine anyone walking away from the show going “Wow, Andrew Cunanan is just misunderstood.” The plot clearly presented Cunanan as a psychopath in need of serious help. We know the game he’s playing, and we don’t become complicit in his game. The same cannot be said for “You.”
I hope that the second season of “You” will learn from its mistakes because I’m too hooked now to stop watching.
Eastern Echo Grade: B