tv review

Lifetime’s You Is Absolutely Bonkers

Penn Badgley, playing You’s resident creepazoid. Photo: Lifetime

I’m not sure if You is good. It’s absurd in a way that seems (mostly) intentional. It teeters back and forth in tone: Sometimes it’s a serious dive into toxic masculinity, possessiveness, sociopathic detachment, and digital identities, and sometimes it’s just making fun of dumb rich people. It’s got a lot of Penn Badgley. It’s bonkers, to be honest, and I inhaled all five of the episodes made available to critics ahead of its premiere this Sunday on Lifetime. And then, I was pretty miffed that I couldn’t watch more.

Here’s the dubious-sounding premise: Penn Badgley plays Joe, a bookstore manager and absolute creepazoid who spots a woman shopping in his store — Beck, played by Elizabeth Lail — and immediately decides she must be his. We know this because You is full of Joe’s voice-over, telling us at every moment what he’s thinking and feeling. He decodes Beck’s clothing and book choices, he decides she’s offering herself to him, and he concludes that no one else sees her true worth. So he finds her online, figures out her address, and within the space of a day, becomes so obsessed that he’s masturbating in the bushes outside her home. Joe does this while we hear his still-calm voice-over, casually explaining why he and Beck belong together. This is the gist of You. It’s a show where you’re trapped inside a monster’s head while he presents his warped worldview as though it’s completely reasonable.

It’s scary! It’s dark! But you could easily be mistaken about You and assume it’s a much darker story than it is. If this were prestige TV, Joe’s descent into Humbert Humbert–esque obsession would go more slowly, as would his eventual courtship of Beck. (If this were prestige TV, everything would go much, much more slowly.) There’d be more atmospheric world-building. The people who become obstacles between Joe and Beck would be more nuanced, muddily drawn characters. None of it would feel so weirdly, upsettingly appealing. But You is aiming toward the wackadoodle side of things, and the result is a show that slips into the realm of messy, murderous romp.

Meanwhile, there’s an element of You that seems to take its cues from Search Party, another show that careens back and forth between horror and satire. Its world is not particularly deep — there’s Joe’s bookstore, Beck’s apartment, and some gestural waves at things like Beck’s grad school and the existence of Greenpoint — but the characters make up for whatever the show misses in setting. To a person, they are horrible, and each in a specific delightful way. Beck’s regular hookup Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci) is trying to get his artisanal soda company going, and he says things to Beck like, “It looks good on you by the way … the extra weight.” Her friend Peach (Peach!), played by Shay Mitchell, is full of condescending concern and effortless snobbery. And it doesn’t take long to realize that while Joe is the most obviously (and criminally) monstrous of the bunch, even Beck, his idealized perfect woman, is at least a little awful.

Spending time with terrible people is not usually a great argument for a TV series, but it’s crucial to making You bearable. Everything spins on the show’s ability to negotiate between the things that are bad/serious and the things that are bad/funny, and it’s quite good at differentiating between the two. It’s also worth noting that You is as good as any show at depicting social media as completely integrated into daily life. That razor-thin tonal accuracy makes the series feel more confident than its premise warrants; when it’s funny, it’s usually a humor with a point of view. (Occasionally, there’s also the humor of clunky dialogue.) When You does dip into bad-serious territory — like when it focuses on Joe’s very frightening ideas about what he imagines to be Beck’s inner life — that has a point of view, too: It’s a portrait of the way his obsessed mind reorients the world around a hair-raising imagined reality. Plus, as all Gossip Girl viewers know, Badgley is great at occupying that tiny space between charming and loathsome, especially when he’s given room to lean toward loathsome.

There is one plot that’s hard to parse within the five episodes I’ve seen: a subplot involving a neighbor kid named Paco (Luca Padovan) whom Joe feels compelled to rescue from his bad home life. Paco is all giant, dark, sad eyes, and in the five episodes I’ve seen, he exists mostly to illuminate a side of Joe that isn’t abhorrent. It is mysterious to me why You would feel that’s a necessary piece of the narrative, although it may be part of the series’ broader interest in dismantling romantic-comedy tropes. It’s deft at demonstrating how frightening rom-com staples would be if you actually had to live through them, but Paco as the cute neighbor kid isn’t fully baked yet. Without knowing what happens to him, it feels too early to pass judgment, but other than being an opportunity to show off Joe’s fantastic bookish pretension, the kid exists in a different, schmoopier story from everything else in the series. My hope is that it’ll land somewhere more dynamic than “sad kid is sad.”

You may not be great. It may at times even be bad, particularly in moments when Beck frets about being “unremarkable,” or during a scene in episode four that takes place, for no discernible reason, at a Dickens Fest. But it is undeniably magnetic. It’s fast and fearless, and its plot dodges and weaves in a way that suggests the death knell of an exhausted premise looms large on the horizon. In the meantime, though, You is running for its life, sprinting through story and sense as fast as it can before it either exhausts itself or gets clobbered over the head with a conveniently placed rock. (This happens to someone in episode five.) God help me, but as long as it manages to keep up this pace, I will be running along with it.

Lifetime’s You Is Absolutely Bonkers