by Rick Drew
Love it or loathe it, YOU, the series that drew little attention when the dark anti-hero thriller/romance first aired on the Lifetime network, has become a viral hit after re-premiering on Netflix in December of 2018.
The modest ten-episode series that barely reached a viewership of 600,000 in its initial broadcast hit the 40,000,000 mark when it landed on the international streaming service.
The streaming juggernaut has not only taken control of the series as a ‘Netflix Original,’ commissioning an additional 10-episode second season (now in pre-production) but has asked for a third installment even before cameras turn on the second run.
Let’s take a writerly overview of what made YOU a breakout hit and what we can learn from it.
LOOK WHO’S STALKING…
The antihero has become the new leading man, especially in television.
In his 2013 book, DIFFICULT MEN Behind the scenes of the Creative Revolution: From the Sopranos to Mad Men to Breaking Bad, author Brett Martin explores the evolution of the antihero in television and why we have learned to love the ‘bad boys’.
According to Martin, rather than seeking traditional role models, we have grown tired of good guys. The good guys are too damned predictable – they have nowhere to go – nowhere to grow.
Lead characters with complex flaws and dark backstories are more interesting to write and more interesting to watch. They thrive in the shadows and fight inner demons. We can relate (to some degree) to their struggle to overcome their flaws and damaged origins to become better people.
John Truby sees character arc as leading the character to a positive or negative self-revelation – to discover their ultimate truth. Stories that lead characters to deep self-discovery are naturally compelling.
NARRATION IS A WEAK LAZY CHOICE… UNLESS IT ISN’T…
One of the surprising elements on You that works remarkably well is the ongoing internal monologue of the lead character, Joe.
As the story unfolds in present time (whereas most narration is reflective) the series follows the lead of the original novel by author Caroline Kepnes and puts us deep inside the mind of the protagonist.
The book unfolds entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, therefore, we are forcibly placed in his singular perception and understanding of what unfolds – his desires, his choices, his actions and rational.
At times this internalized perception shifts in surprising ways. We feel like we know Joe – even like him… but then he does little off-putting things like masturbating outside his perspective girlfriend’s open window while she makes love to her current boyfriend… and starts killing people. A lot of people…
Did I mention Joe is flawed? Did we continue to side with Dexter when he dismembered bad guys with a bone saw? Did we secretly sort of hope that Walter White would get away with his crimes?
BAD, BADDER, BADDEST…
Joe is a seriously sick puppy, creating the major challenge faced by showrunner Sera Gamble. In an interview for the website, NME.COM she offered:
I think we are hardwired to want to forgive characters like Joe. Most leading characters in most TV shows and films are just straight white men. Most of them cross lines that are problematic, and we are trained to forgive them and see them as the star and the hero of the story.
“So, our show is just interested in getting our fingernails in the dirt of that, really. I think the way that Penn (lead actor, Penn Badgely) addresses this is emblematic of his sort of dry sense of humour about it all.
But I will say this: in season two – and ideally beyond – Joe, who is not a monster and is somebody who contains a lot of confidence hits within himself, he may have a moment where he seeks redemption, but that’s different than the show wanting to redeem the character.”
To put it another way, the show does not try to justify Joe’s actions, instead, it uses the internal monologue to place us inside his motivations – we may not feel comfortable with what he does, but he does, and that allows us to follow his story, albeit an uncomfortable journey.
One major change from the book is the entire B-Story with Pedro, the little boy next door to Joe who is suffering an abusive relationship with his drugged-out mom and her brutal boyfriend.
Joe relates to the kid, protects him and ultimately kills for him. Not in the book at all – entirely added for the series.
Why? Because they use the device to create more balance for the character than existed in the original book. Joe relates to the boy, providing an entry point to explore his own abusive childhood and his strange formative relationship with Mr. Mooney, the owner of the bookshop who adopted him when he was a teenager, teaching Joe valuable lessons in life and antique book restoration by imprisoning him in the soundproof cage in the basement. (Don’t all bookstores have these?)
These sympathetic details flesh out his character and allows to see beyond his creepy stalker/killer persona.
Another change from the book is how we perceive Joe’s victims. (Getting into major spoiler territory here – get over it.)
In the book, Benji (his first kill) is just a hipster douche. In the series, Benji is a hipster douche who killed a kid in Thailand while on vacation and has the video to prove it. Well… I guess Joe can kill him…
And Peach Salinger… in the book, Joe chases her down while she’s jogging on the beach and brutally smothers her in the sand before dumping her in the ocean with stones her pockets ala Virginia Wolfe in a presumed literary inspired suicide.
Of course, in the series, Peach is dispatched off-camera in what Joe assures us was self-defense. All these additions and changes allow the audience to feel more comfortable with relating to this increasingly hard to love antihero.
The You pilot didn’t mislead us about who Joe was — we saw the romantic, the stalker, the protector — and the killer. Back to showrunner Sera Gamble:
“In writing the pilot we talked about how we saw the pilot as like a little capsule of Joe Goldberg. By the end of it, you had to have the complete spectrum where you really understood [the character].
You saw the best of him; at the beginning in the bookstore, I think also how he interacts with Paco. And then also braining someone with a hammer. We wanted the whole thing.”
But Joe’s love interest, Guinevere Beck (played by Elizabeth Lail) is severely underdeveloped as a character. This is in part a carryover from the original novel in which we only have Joe’s perception, so we only ever see her through his eyes. The series makes more of an effort to put meat on her thin bones, but the character never seems worthy of the obsession she inspires. She’s just another pixie dream girl.
Back to showrunner Gamble again, this time from The Hollywood Reporter:
“It was important to us in telling her story to have her — because she’s just alone in there and there’s literally nothing else for her to do besides think about this stuff — we wanted her to track through all of the things she’d be thinking about what had landed her in the cage. We wanted to be sure that we hit on the conclusion that there was no way for her to win.
It wasn’t as though she was dumb or selfish and so therefore, she deserves to be locked in a cage like an animal, rather that in many ways the situation has been unwinnable for her for a long time. This is just the most extreme version of that.”
Beck is a dream-girl, a target, a cypher… we knew this would not end well for her – but somehow, we hoped it would. It doesn’t. Yet, in the end she is not a victim. She does everything she can do to survive – to convince Joe she truly understands him and his twisted vision of the world.
Beck’s death is heartbreaking and strangely romantic in a sick way, because we have been conditioned to see her fate through Joe’s eyes. What other choice did he have? The appearance of the presumed dead Candace (the old girlfriend) as a hook at the end offers a tantalizing tease to what the next season will hold when the action shifts to California. But that’s another story.
According to Gamble in The Hollywood Reporter:
“Part of the fun of continuing the story is that the loose ends from Joe’s past are still dangling and could come back to him at any time. He is very worried about the fact that Peach Salinger’s family has hired people to investigate her alleged suicide, and there is evidence potentially still at her house from season one.
If you look at every act of violence that he does in season one, that is potentially something that could come back and bite him.”
In fact, one of the big flaws in the series (slightly less-so in the book) is that Joe is the sloppiest/luckiest serial killer who ever bagged a victim.
(NOTE TO SELF: Do not leave a jar of your own urine at a crime scene… And wear gloves… And plan… And don’t cremate bodies in the woods where hikers can wander by…)
On the other hand, had Joe been more crafty and less impulsive, we might not have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
THE CYBER FACTOR…
In both the book and the series, the theme of how we live our lives online is an important element and I think has contributed to the viral popularity of You.
Though Joe’s success at hacking into Beck’s cyber-life lack any credibility, the illustration of it presents a well-executed examination of how Instagramed and Facebooked our lives have become – and the danger that represents. It’s one thing that Beck can’t seem to afford curtains (duh…) but we can all relate to the fear of being cyber-stalked or hacked.
FINDING THE RIGHT AUDIENCE…
You is the perfect Netflix show, and I suspect the freedom of producing the subsequent seasons for streamer will only make it better. Netflix does not release demographic info, but I am willing to bet the show appeals to young, urban viewers – women in particular, who have long been the target audience for crime dramas and ‘bad boy’ antiheros.
Originally developed by Greg Berlanti (RIVERDALE) and Sara Gamble for Showtime, after Showtime passed, the series ultimately ended up on Lifetime before finding a home on Netflix.
I’m going out on a limb here, but my perception of a Lifetime audience (having written a MOW for the network) is primarily middle-class moms, middle-aged or older. While they might have warmed to the ‘romance’ of You, once Joe brains a guy with a hammer, they probably switched back to Ellen ASAP.
According to a recent article in the (not failing) New York Times, Bela Bajaria, a vice president of content for Netflix said she was enthusiastic about You from the moment she read the script.
“We really felt this hit a sweet spot for our audience, and we felt that our members would love the show,” she said. “I was hoping it would be big.”
In fact, after Lifetime balked at a second season, Netflix committed to making more episodes even before the series began streaming. Exec Producer Berlanti joked, “If Joe is a man who is simply just searching for love, well, then, our show finally found the right partner.”
Further to the show’s success, Bajaria offered, “It’s actually done well in every region, and that doesn’t always happen,” adding that she was particularly pleased with its performance in Latin America, France and the Philippines, which speaks not only to the universality of the story, but to the globalization of writing for television.
It’s a streaming world, boys and girls. Get used to it.
A teacher of screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School, Rick Drew has written over one hundred hours of television and developed series for Universal Television, Warner Brothers International, Ivan Reitman Productions and the CBC. He is currently developing a one-hour police drama for Global Television. Oh, and LB wants y’all to know that Rick writes fast – very fast.