“I believe in love at first sight, but love is… tricky.” That’s the sound of your new favourite stalker, Joe (Penn Badgley), in You, Netflix’s new drama. A creepy thriller for the social media age, it’s Gone Girl meets There’s Something About Mary, a disturbing drama about an obsessive single white male that deliberately places us in the awkward position of following things from his perspective.
Based on the novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, it’s a wonderfully twisted ride, one that gets just the right blend of social smarts and cheesy pulp – you’ll nod sagely with every new twist, you’ll warily change all of your online passwords as soon as the end credits roll, then you’ll immediately start on the next episode.
Joe is a bookshop owner in New York, a lonely sociopath with a nasty streak buried underneath a polite, good-guy exterior – it’s a reassuring sign that nobody explicitly drops a knowing don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover joke. When Beck (Elizabeth Lail) walks into his shop one day, there seems to be a spark of a connection, and Joe takes her friendliness in entirely the wrong way, seeing her out before seeing himself into her social media profiles, messages and more. This is all rationalised by Joe’s voiceover, in which he rants against the modern world, its artificial online surface that everyone hides behind, and claims he’s trying to find out about the real her, then argues that he’s trying to protect her from, well, any other man in her life.
“There are scary people out there,” he warns her, pocketing her phone, before declaring to us that he’s determined to show her he’s “not a maybe” but “the one”. It’s an unsettling eye onto the world, and Badgley plays it with a perfect balance of sinister cruelty, a calculated choice of words, and a smiling, friendly exterior. Lail, meanwhile, is an immediately sympathetic figure, and is thankfully given more depth as the season continues than just being the object of his obsession – perversely, his delving into her private life also opens up more of a chance for her to find nuances, flaws and hopes underneath the familiar persona typically found in a romantic comedy.
Indeed, the series gradually moves through the kind of plot points you’d expect from a rom-com, but gives them an unnerving new perspective, as we see the machinations that could go into engineering such beats. That carefully crafted subversion is fused with the show’s most intelligent decision of all – to never, ever be subtle about what it’s doing. Every lesson, every topical nod and any cautionary shocks might as well come with the ping of a WhatsApp message on full volume, but that allows the writers to indulge in the soapiest of twists, throwing in the contrived (a train station encounter), the extreme (a dead body appears early on) and the daft (a sound-proof vault in the bookshop’s basement). The result is addictively ridiculous as much as it is enjoyably dark, and barrels along with the pacing of a trashy paperback. It’s thought-provoking, it’s alarming where it should be, and it’s enormously fun.
You: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.