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Should You Watch … ‘You,’ the Penn Badgley–Is-a-Stalker Show?

Did you like Season 2 of ‘Dexter’? Well then.

Lifetime/Ringer illustration

The year is 2018. Dan Humphrey has been imprisoned on a squalid French island for the six years since he was outed as Gossip Girl’s, um, Gossip Girl. He has planned a bloody, many-staged revenge on the fabulous prep school–bred 20-somethings he feels have wronged him and plotted to get the woman he feels he deserves. He has dug a tunnel straight for Manhattan and only one network is brave enough to show the carnage: Lifetime.

OK, that’s not exactly the plot of You, the Penn Badgley–starring series that debuted Sunday on the preferred network of sinister romantic plots—but honestly, it’s not so far off. Based on the 2014 Caroline Kepnes novel of the same name, it tells the story of boy (Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a creepy bookstore manager with a burgeoning streak of mortifying violence) meets girl (Elizabeth Lail as Guinevere Beck, an impossibly naive MFA student and aspiring poet). Boy stalks girl—first on social media and then via such charming hobbies as peering through her windows and breaking into her apartment while she’s away. He calls this “hanging.”

In essence, Joe is who our parents told us was waiting in AOL chat rooms back in the day: He obsesses and broods and steals panties and cellphones and compulsively masturbates and has an ex whom he just doesn’t want to talk about, OK? You is, if nothing else, a cautionary tale about the perils of not keeping your social media channels set to private; the novel was the sort of book to get blurbed by both Stephen King and Lena Dunham.

The show gives us a kaleidoscope of New York-ish fantasies, whose deranged grotesqueness suggests each person standing in Times Square in 1973 was handed $10 million and commanded to spend the next four and a half decades being fruitful. There’s a best friend played by Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell named Peach Salinger (yes, that Salinger) who throws a party each year on the anniversary of her parents’ divorce; a scumbag boyfriend who is in the midst of launching “an artisanal soda company”; a body-positive Instagram influencer with millions of followers and some very bad opinions; glamorous weekends in Montauk and Dickensian costumes; the phrase “blowjob eyes.” A gluten allergy is brought up in a literal hostage situation. You are subjected, including in a single “Previously On …” segment, to the playback of a decidedly freaky Joe ejaculation on four different occasions. He goes doh-doooOOOOOHHHH-mmmnnnfff. Four times!

The story is told, mostly, from the perspective of Joe, which is a, uh, weird place to be as things slip from creepy to crime-laden. But Humbert Humbert he is not. Things pick up when the show decamps from Joe’s POV a few episodes in. Once You gets beyond the narration of an increasingly realized psychopath—as in the DSM-sanctioned, serial-killer variety; he’s a Franzen fan, surprise—there are hints that the show might be in on the joke, such as it is: “He’s got that Trump-just-took-Pennsylvania look,” one character notes of another. Peach serves as a nouveau Blair Waldorf—all the closet space and interest in keeping receipts with no scheming time frittered away on Chuck Bass—and is every bit the double-edged gal pal that her forebear was. For a show whose central tension—will Beck figure out what Joe is up to?—seems a little tricky to draw out for a whole season, it does a good job of keeping things interesting. Lifetime certainly seems to think so: You has already been picked up for a second season.

In all, it’s a bit dark for binge viewing, and can’t quite decide if it wants to be a campy, creepier Gossip Girl or a genuinely troubling social media–age thriller. It does much better with the former than the latter, and with few places to go beyond the truly weird, here’s hoping for a decadent, live-tweeted horror story.

Should You Watch It? The toxic masculinity is a little, uh, toxic, particularly in a moment when the scope of, for example, real-life authority figures grasping the thighs of women who thought they were there to discuss business is finally coming to light. You wants these moments to read as fleeting bummers and the thigh thing, for one, happens more than once—a serial harasser is forced to un-fire his assistant when she compiles evidence of his pattern of abuse; he keeps his plush job and presumably carries on abusing underlings; fuck yeah! But for any woman who really has used a credit card to pay for something at a shop and then had the man behind the counter track her down on social media with romantic assumptions—loved never going to my hometown Subway again!—it can be pretty dark.

Wait, Seriously? At certain points the show feels a little like comedy: How many times can Penn Badgley stride by in a baseball cap without getting noticed? Is his prospective lady love really that unaware of her surroundings? How does the much-discussed rotting corpse stench not tip anyone off? Is that really what happens to eyeballs after you die? I digress.

Are There Better Places to Get Your Creepy Decadence Kicks? Dexter—the good seasons of Dexter, anyway—did a better job of splicing together splashy scenes and corporeal monstrosities. Through the first half of the season, You most closely resembles Dexter’s second season—you know, the arsonist girlfriend one? Yeah.

What Is Lifetime’s Obsession With Café Bustelo? In one of our last check-ins with the network, an inmate got busy sexing up a prison worker in the hope of getting a can of Bustelo smuggled in; You holds up Joe’s preference for the yellow tin as proof of his humble honesty. Is Café Bustelo the favored coffee of deranged murderers everywhere? What exactly does Lifetime know? Let’s hope we find out before I get too much further with the can in my kitchen.