What is You? It is the answer to the question, “What if Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey tried to write his own version of American Psycho and set it in the present day so he could be super-judgy about (spooky voice) sooOooocial meeeEEEeedia”?, which is a question that I personally didn’t have but no judgment if you did. It is the first post-Pretty Little Liars effort of Shay Mitchell, a.k.a. Emily, who was consistently among the lower-ranked liars in my proprietary Pretty Little Power Rankings, but it’s a brave new day and anything is possible for Shay, and for us. It is an alternate reality where bookstores have soundproof glass chambers in their basements for keeping rare volumes and douchey hostages in mint condition. It is the hardest-to-Google new show in your fall calendar.
You — a new series co-created by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble adapting a novel by Caroline Kepnes — is not a hate-watch. It’s a “Wait, what?”-watch. It is bonkers from start to finish, absurd throughout, a deranged and bizarro experience for us all. Obviously it is my honor to recap You for you.
Are you feeling like, “huh, that’s a lot of internal monologue, I wish we could just get on with the show part of the show,” whoooo boy, you are going to have some qualms with the storytelling style of You, which relies quite heavily on the flat, affectless, vocal-fried voiceover of the real XOXO Gossip Girl. I would not insist upon referencing Penn Badgley’s breakout role so much if he weren’t basically playing the marginally creepier version of Dan Humphrey in this series. He even has a variation on Serena as the object of his obsession: the hot blonde who only seems shallow because all of her friends are terrible and she has to act that way, for like, the society, but she is secretly very deep and only this male stranger, stalking her from afar, can see her for who she really is.
Badgley’s Joe works in a bookstore (of course) which is where he first eyes our heroine/victim, whose name — I’m sorry — is Guinevere Beck. (This is not the most eyeroll-inducing name in the series! Get excited.) Joe appraises the Madewell-toting basic and, upon learning her taste in books is up-to-snuff — so, is the same as his — approves of her and her book selection, the unsubtly titled Desperate Characters. I’m not sure how Joe plans to keep a bookstore in business by barely hiding his disdain for people who enjoy a Dan Brown novel, and also I’m pretty sure people who enjoy Dan Brown novels are buying them on Amazon.
Joe bonds with Manic Pixie Braless Bookstore Girl because they share a hatred for, as she puts it, the lowly people who buy books “because of what’s popular, not because they want to be moved or changed in some way.” This line is so on the nose for Joe’s taste in women that I have to believe there is a twist coming, eventually, wherein she is running a scam on him.
Ethan, Joe’s cookbook-loving co-worker, encourages Joe to Google the daylights out of “everybody calls me Beck” because she flirted with him, even though she did not write down her number, ask him to meet up with her sometime, or give any other straightforward indication that she wanted to be found. Joe is so starved for affection that he interprets the smallest non-gestures as blatant overtures — like, Beck using a credit card and not cash because “you want me to know your name,” or Beck not wearing a bra because “you wanted me to notice.” Women just don’t like wearing bras, buddy! Because bras suck! They’re mostly designed by men, and the straps are always sliding or tugging and they do weird digging things into your ribs and they’re never the right size, and it’s a whole thing.
We learn via voiceover that Joe was in love once. “She broke my heart, Beck. She really did a number on me.” So now I’m concerned that this whole show is actually a flashback and Joe is describing his side of the story to Beck, who is zip-tied to a radiator in Joe’s apartment, something we will only discover in the season finale. (Please share your wild predictions in the comments!)
Upon the stairs outside Joe’s apartment we meet the unlikeliest little boy who ever did live: a noble, young soul who passes the hours while his mom and his mom’s boyfriend scream at each other not by playing Fortnite or eating Cheetos while watching YouTube videos but by reading novels from the 19th century, procured for him by Joe. This is, to say the least, implausible, but in Joe’s world, there are two kinds of people: Good People, who only read obscure contemporary fiction and/or highbrow classic literature, and Bad People, who read gross, mainstream paperbacks and/or do not read at all. Joe needs us to know this kid is Good People, ergo: a leather-bound The Three Musketeers.
In our apparently necessary Save the Cat moment, Joe offers this stairwell urchin a meatball sub and another book as soon as he knocks out The Three Musketeers. This is basically the relationship between Belle and the bookseller in her small provincial town.
Will it surprise you to learn that Joe has a record player, a fridge with nothing in it but mayonnaise and peanut butter, and a massive apartment? He settles in for a cozy night of spelunking into Beck’s internet presence. “Your social media’s a liar,” Joe reports. “It says, you’re a happy-go-lucky dilettante. But underneath it all, you seem like the genuine article.” Joe is the guy who falls for the Gone Girl Cool Girl: He thinks he is above the machinations and benign-if-glossy self-promotion in which modern women typically engage — lightly editing Instagrams, curating bookshelves and Netflix queues, wearing no-makeup makeup — but in reality is a total sucker for it.
Joe rapidly learns Beck’s home address. If this show is nothing but an elaborately conceived PSA for all women everywhere to password-protect their devices and put all their settings to private, well, Daiyenu. Beck lives on the ground floor of a building with giant windows and no curtains, oooookay.
Joe hates all of Beck’s friends, who are wealthy and therefore bad. They probably do not even like the specific books that Joe insists women like in order to be sexually appealing to him personally!! How DARE they. Unlike her friends — including Shay Mitchell, whose name is “Peach” — Beck is broke, and therefore good.
She cannot gallivant with her crew, for she must write, so she goes home and flops theatrically on her bed, then opens her laptop for .02 seconds, before – dun dun DUNNN — enter: the Unworthy Suitor. He’s right out of Williamsburg dirtbag central casting: flannel tied at the waist, carefully groomed scruff, and — I shit you not — an “artisanal soda company” he’s trying to get off the ground. Also, he shows up in a taxi (not an Uber?). His name is Benjamin J. Ashbey III (remember, rich = bad). We learn, via some speedy-sloppy plot-exposition-through-dialogue, that this non-boyfriend cheats on Beck, but then he kisses her neck so she has sex with him. Sure!
Here I write in my notes, in all-caps: “SERIOUSLY SHE WOULD NOT BE FUCKING THIS DUDE WITH THE LIGHTS ON IN FRONT OF HER ENORMOUS WINDOWS.”
I’m not sure why Benji needs to be so comically horrid. I guess so we are somewhat sympathetic to the psycho that is Joe? When Benji leaves, Beck masturbates — again in front of the window — with a pillow, which like, you do you girl but also, maybe treat yourself to a vibrator, seeing as your boyfriend isn’t doing the trick. You’re never too broke for self-care! Anyway, Joe makes like Harvey Weinstein and jerks off into a plant. Really: He masturbates in the bushes across the street from her apartment.
Everyone stop reading this right now and set your Instagram and Facebook to private. Just do it. I’ll wait.
Joe returns home to find the stairwell ragamuffin, exiled from his home like a freshman who found a sock on the dorm room door. So off they go to Mr. Mooney’s bookstore, down to this enormous basement, where we find this glass box called “the cage,” where early editions and collectibles are stored. The cage is roughly the same temperature as the average office (65 degrees, I am wearing a slanket as I type this) and is hidden from the world, because sunshine will MURDER YOUR BOOKS. All your libraries should be underground. Write that down.
“The most valuable things in life are usually the most helpless,” Joe says. Time to read Don Quixote, from which Joe definitely got all the right ideas!
Naturally, because Ron = Bad, he is angry at Joe for introducing his girlfriend’s child to books, the devil’s entertainment. Where does Joe get off putting words and ideas into this de facto orphan’s head? Then again, Ron knows that Joe is “a freak.” Hey, even a broken clock.
Joe breaks into Beck’s apartment by calling in a gas leak that wasn’t there and goes through all her stuff while she meets with the professor she’s T.A.’ing for. “Professor Obvious wants to fuck you,” Joe observes, not incorrectly. Love a good cliché! Her professor chides for being way behind on work, and Beck is too stressed/busy/etc. to get it done by deadline. He suggests she move to part-time, but if she does, she’ll lose her housing. She says, like the most desperate character (heyyy), “I can’t go to part time.” The only way they can discuss this is over a drink. It’s a date! Can’t imagine how that could go sideways.
Beck returns home while Joe is still rummaging through her things. “There’s no place cheaper to live,” Beck wails to her mom on the phone as she paces helplessly around her absolutely massive apartment in the Village. But here we get the most realistic moment of the premiere: Beck FaceTimes her friends, begs them, through tears, to come to Greenpoint, and Peach replies, “Why don’t you come here?”
Beck succeeds in dragging her girls to a bar where they serve pickleback shots. She toasts to “vulnerability and shit” before doing a sloshed reading of her poem at an open mic. The room is wildly indifferent. A man asks her why she is “so sad.” It is so painful that even Joe cannot bear to watch it.
And it is here we learn another very important lesson: Don’t let your extremely drunk friends subway home alone.
Beck, dramatically wasted and fumbling with her phone (again, books = good, technology = bad) trips and falls onto the subway tracks. She nearly dies trying to save her phone. WHAT A METAPHOR. Let that symbolism hit you like a speeding subway train. Just before she up and Zoe Barneses herself, Beck is saved by Joe. She promptly vomits on his face. The “oops I vomited on the guy I like” is my favorite rom-com trope — see also: 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls — and it is deployed with real gusto here, as it is almost certain Joe got some of Beck’s puke in his open mouth.
As she chugs water (but did they buy mints or gum or anything?!), Beck eyes Joe. “I don’t want to sound like a stalker, but I think I know you.” Joe confirms, with the forced ease of someone who has practiced this conversation 10,000 times in his mind, that he’s the guy from the bookstore, and they make sexy eyes at each other while talking about how they are too smart for life to be bearable, the chosen conversation topic of sad narcissists everywhere. Benji kills the mood, but not before Joe can steal Beck’s phone and tell us about a girl he loved and followed out of New York. 100% chance that bitch is dead in a ditch somewhere outside Milwaukee right now.
One more time for the stairwell stray, because Ron came home drunk and — as your abusive alcoholic boyfriends are wont to do — took out his rage on… a book? Nothing offends Ron like classic literature. “I tried to stop him!” wails this Dickensian waif. This is followed by a borderline-pornographic sequence about how to repair a book.
Meanwhile, Joe catfishes Benji by pretending to be “the culture guy from New York Magazine”! I am extremely flattered by this. This alone raises the premiere to three stars from the two I was originally allotting it. Benji is stoked, bruh. He narrates his reply: “Yeah our sodas are legit, period, I would love to have you meet up to try the goods, period.” I love that Benji literally walks into a death trap because he is too insecure to admit he has no idea where they are. For this act of insufferable hipsterdom, Benji gets a mallet to the head.
As Benji sleeps/bleeds it off in The Cage, Becks swings by the bookstore to officially kick off her courtship with Joe. For plot device reasons, no one ever goes to the basement except for Joe, so it is totally cool that Benji is locked in a dungeon down there, with nothing to pass the time but books he is too awful to want to read.