Most men on television bore me to tears. Give me Peggy over Don, Kim over Jimmy, Eileen “Candy” Merrell over everyone on The Deuce. Give me Donna and Cam over Gordon and Joe, Nora and Laurie over Kevin and Matt; give me series rotten with women, The Good Fight, GLOW, Killing Eve, Pose. Then again, Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), the protagonist of Lifetime’s You, is not most men: The handsome manager of a New York book shop, Joe is also an obsessive stalker and, seven episodes in, a murderer twice over. He’s a public masturbator, a brazen manipulator, a home invader, a frequent thief. He’s not, in short—the text of Badgley’s Twitter bio aside—an “antihero” in the mold of so much (dull) TV drama, merely flawed, occasionally selfish, partially damaged. No, Joe is worse. Much, much worse.
As Paste’s Alexis Gunderson wrote last month, You’s high-wire act, positioning a total creep (and dangerous criminal!) as its main character (and narrator!), is key to the series’ confrontation with rape culture. In essence, You, developed by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti from Caroline Kepnes’ 2014 novel, administers a weekly test to viewers, identifying the range of questionable acts we’ll let slide in the name of “love.” This is, as it were, the series’ pick-up line: I’m not too proud to admit that I’d let Penn Badgley stab me is a phrase that popped into my head during the pilot episode, before I recoiled at my own sick social conditioning. Now past the midpoint of its first season, though—and with the caveat that a series this devotedly nasty is liable to jump the rails at any moment—You’s confusion of romantic expectations is no longer the driving force of its narrative; it’s become a more traditional potboiler, albeit an especially toothsome one, turning on the if, when, and how of Joe’s capture, and the lengths he’ll go to elude it. No, You does one better, and broader, than its high concept suggests. Much, much better: It breaks TV drama’s antihero curse.
In fact, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff points out in his terrific exegesis on the connections between #MeToo and TV’s “asshole protagonists,” Joe is a walking, talking broadside against the brooding figures of the medium’s “Golden Age.” You turns the subtext of the antihero drama—the troubled interior life of a difficult man—into text—Joe’s narration, addressed to his unwitting quarry, Beck (Elizabeth Lail)—and shows that interior life for what it is: a veritable Yucca Mountain of toxic ideas and heinous acts, gussied up with references to European literature and the chivalric ideal. “You fall for the wrong men,” Joe says of Beck in the pilot, and perhaps of us. “Bad men. You let them in. You let them hurt you.” You, with refreshing frankness, digs into this attraction—this deception—not by trying to “complicate” it, to unearth “nuance” or cultivate “empathy,” but by emphasizing, again and again, that men capable of such behavior must first be remorseful before they can be redeemed. And for Joe, unsurprisingly, remorse never enters the equation: Perhaps his most frightening character trait is his belief that he has Beck’s best interests at heart.
Where the antihero drama assumes that we will love, or at least care about, a monstrous protagonist—and indeed frames him as a man, not a monster, despite his monstrous acts—You does the reverse; with the exception of Paco (Luca Padovan), the young neighbor Joe takes under his wing, the series slowly strips its male characters of any traits that might be called “sympathetic,” leaving only the monster within. Paco’s mother’s boyfriend (Daniel Cosgrove) is “an alcoholic shitbag who beats women.” Beck’s main squeeze, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), is an airhead start-up bro born with a silver spoon in his mouth, a shameless cheater and a disloyal friend. Her MFA adviser, Professor Paul Leahy (Reg Rogers), is a serial sexual harasser; later, she endures a limousine meet-and-greet with a hotshot agent desperate to get in her pants. “Look at you!” he cries as she climbs into the car, capturing the satisfyingly broad brush with which You paints. “Like a literary hooker!”
You mercifully tempers this sense of menace with bursts of keen humor and intermittent comeuppance: The most important weapon in its arsenal is men’s humiliation. Beck publicly rebuffs her professor’s advances, then threatens to expose his history of harassment in order to escape his control; her best friend, Peach (Shay Mitchell), lands a zinger at a famous dirtbag’s expense (“Let’s just say that James Franco and I didn’t end well”); Joe’s fantasies are interrupted from time to time by his real-life inadequacies, as when he lasts all of eight seconds the first time he and Beck have sex. In the main, though, You isn’t (yet) about revenge, not of the sort savored by the women of Sweet/Vicious or Dietland; it’s as if, in order to underscore the fact that men who might be “antiheroes” in another context are loathsome pigs, the series can’t risk muddying the waters. I suspect this says less about You than it does about us—for one thing, Beck’s affluent, self-obsessed, frankly horrible friends seem designed to try our sympathies for “unlikable” women—but the series’ embrace of the soap’s broad strokes has its benefits. Rather than fall into the same somber rut as many antihero dramas, with threadbare tropes masquerading as shades-of-gray seriousness, You has razor blades sewn into the lining of its gauzy, rom-com New York. That’s novel.
In fact, the series’ only misfire to date is also proof of concept: The fourth episode, “The Captain,” opens with Beck as the narrator, and You loses its edge almost immediately. There are plenty of reasons for this—the episode’s unexplained setting at a historical reenactment; a switcheroo in which Beck’s seeming sugar daddy turns out to be her actual (and not at all dead!) daddy; a bunch of bland sparring among Beck, her stepmother, and her half sister—but the one that comes to mind first is that it drifts so lazily into antihero territory, except in this case the antihero is Beck. We hear her own admission that she’s “the worst friend” after dismissing Peach’s advice. We watch her whine and pout her way through lunch with her family, upset that her father used to be a drug addict, and at the prospect of being forced to support herself financially. We even plumb the possibility, given the truth about her family, that she’s harboring other secrets, a millennial Dick Whitman living a double life.
The problem isn’t that the series can’t work if Beck becomes more than the object of Joe’s obsession; it’s that the series, having spent the first three episodes treating her as such, races to flesh out her character by leaning on much the same shorthand it’s trying to combat. (For what it’s worth, the moments when her words and actions pop the bubble Joe’s imagined around them do plenty to suggest that Beck has an inner life to which Joe isn’t privy.) No, You is at its diabolical best when it acknowledges that the TV antihero is no longer exceptional, that most of the men we let into our living rooms are unworthy of our attention. As Joe remarks in the most recent episode, his perception as sharp as Hannibal Lecter’s, “Every asshole in this city has the same, not-so-special problems.”
You airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.