TV Review: YOU – Love It or Leave It?

YOU
“Love It or Leave It?”
Premieres September 9, 2018

YOU, one of the newest shows of the Fall season, premieres Sunday, September 9 at  10pm (ET) on Lifetime. We have been fortunate to see the first several episodes in advance and so we’re providing our (spoiler free) “Love It or Leave It?” review earlier than usual.

Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime

Based on Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 novel of the same name, YOU stars Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl), Elizabeth Lail (Once Upon a Time) and Shay Mitchell (Pretty Little Liars). The series was developed for television by Sera Gamble (The Magicians) and Greg Berlanti (The CW Arrow-verse). Gamble and Berlanti are also co-executive producers and sharing showrunner duties, as well.

Penn Badgley in YOU. Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime
Elizabeth Lail in YOU. Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime
Shay Mitchell in YOU. Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime

A quick look at the tremendous acting and creative power at work here and you’re probably not surprised to hear that the show has already been renewed for a second season. If you follow me on social media or listen to the Jay and Mike Show (jayandmikeshow.com), you may already have a sense of how I feel about YOU.  Also, I have become very aware of how often I am saying the word “you.”

In short, YOU is a twisted “love” story for the 21 st Century. And it’s fucking fantastic. With New York City as a backdrop (and itself, its own character), YOU boldly dives head first into exploring the hottest button issues in our technology- and social media-obsessed culture. If you’re reading this, YOU will speak to you on some level.

Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime

The Premise (Spoiler Free).  Joe Goldberg (Badgley) is the manager of a stand alone bookstore, Mooney Rare and Used, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He’s also ridiculously smart or, at least, the most well read character ever portrayed on television.  One day, the beautiful Guinevere Beck (Lail) walks into Mooney’s and, before they’ve even spoken a word to each other, Joe decides they are meant to be together.

Using a combination of his above average online detective skills and Beck’s startlingly (though honestly, very plausible) lax personal security, Joe is able to find out the most intimate details of Beck’s life and begin a slow manipulation to bring them together. Joe’s goal is to make her realize that she’s in “love” with him.  A persistent thorn in Joe’s side is Peach Salinger (Mitchell), Beck’s best friend and fiercest protector. Will Joe and Beck wind up together or will Peach ruin everything (from Joe’s POV, anyway)?

What Is Love, Anyway? You’re going to hear the word love used a lot in connection with YOU, but for me, it’s always “love.” There is very little actual love at work here. Obsession?  Co-dependency? Emotional abuse? These are the real emotions the characters in YOU are referring to as “love.” Suffice it to say, there are a lot of broken people, and broken relationships, in this show.  In the episodes I have seen, I’d say there is only one genuinely (somewhat) emotionally healthy relationship and really, it’s not.  That being said, I don’t want to spoil it for you, I want to see what you think. Is this love?

Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime

Joe, The Character, and Penn, the Actor. YOU‘s undisputed standout is its lead, Penn Badgley. Known best for his role as Dan “Lonely Boy” Humphrey in the hit show, Gossip Girl, Badgley is bringing all of his skill to bear in YOU.  The trick here, and the fine line that Badgley walks as Joe, is that he is a stalker. Straight up. Hard Stop. Do not fool yourself. Joe’s got major obsession issues and they’re clear from the earliest minutes of the show’s opening scene. BUT, he’s also charming as hell and funny and intelligent and attractive. I’m a secure heterosexual male but I wouldn’t kick him out of bed. Except, you know, for the whole crazy stalker part.

Badgley navigates clear from a minefield of tropes that a lesser show would wallow in. The writing and direction, as well as Badgley’s portrayal, never feels cheap or a caricature of a disturbed person.  And, in the end, Badgley’s Joe is the thing that keeps you glued to your screen.

Earlier, I mentioned that YOU is going to make you squirm. A large part of that feeling derives from the fact that for 90% of the show, you want to hang with Joe. He drops pop culture references and high-minded literary quips with ease, he snarks on Beck’s friends like a motherfucker, and he’s beyond entertaining. But then? Then his dark side comes out. It’s not quite whiplash but you’re going to wonder, “oh man, how was I just rooting for this guy?!?” Badgley moves from points A to B with ease … troubling ease.

In a recent interview promoting the show, Penn discussed his worry with making another creepy white guy likable but then got to one of the core themes of YOU and how it will interact with its audience, “there’s a certain accountability, I think, that we hold the viewer to.”

YOU IS going to stare at its viewers and make them question from moment to moment if Joe is good or bad? Evil or misunderstood? Throw in a troubled upbringing and a surprising relationship, and Joe becomes far from a predictable character. Quite the opposite. I’m quite comfortable saying that Joe Goldberg is one of the most complex characters we’ve seen on TV in a long time. And Badgley’s nuanced, charismatic performance is what gives that life.

Photo by Courtesy of Lifetime

Love It Or Leave It? LOVE IT! YOU‘s going to make you feel a cacophony of emotion; you’ll be laughing one minute and then feeling very disturbed just moments later.  There are quiet introspective beats of broken humanity seamlessly woven into terror inducing thrills.  You’re going to laugh. But you’re also going to squirm. In the end, you’re also going to be forced to look at your own habits and how you interact with the world. Since I’ve started watching, I’ve certainly been thinking about my security passcodes and social media privacy settings  (though, goddamit, I still post too much on Twitter … follow me at @popcultureview, shameless plug).

At the end of the day, YOU is a psychological thriller with ample charm and an atmospheric noir mood to boot. That it’s extremely well written, directed  and acted drama is the proverbial cherry on the sundae.

YOU is going to be a hit this Fall and the center of water cooler talk on Monday mornings, so take my advice and don’t miss an episode. I’ll be watching … YOU!

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