The last time I watched a Lifetime show, Dance Moms was still on the air, and I was rooting for the dancing queen underdog Chloe to get the recognition she deserved from her verbally abusive dance instructor. So it has been years since I’ve visited the channel and only the high acclaim of a Big Brother podcaster and a need to fulfill my mystery fix brought me to the new Lifetime show, You.
The psychological thriller and drama follows full-time bookstore manager and part-time stalker Joe (played by Penn Badgley, Gossip Girl). He finds the woman of his dreams in aspiring writer Beck (played by Elizabeth Lail, Dead of Summer) pushing him to avidly stalk her. The show was 48 minutes of tears, new fears, suspense, and the biggest OMG moment when I saw Shay Mitchell (who acted in my beloved guilty pleasure, Pretty Little Liars) pop up on my TV screen.
In the show’s first minutes, it’s just another monotonous day, another shift for bookstore manager Joe until Beck walks in. The camera follows Beck while she searches among the bookshelves. Joe’s observant voice-over plays in the background allowing the audience to become active participants in Joe’s stalking. They talk. They flirt. He thinks she’s lovely. Their intertwined tale begins, or more importantly, Joe’s obsession starts to flourish.
He googles her online, rummages through her social media accounts, finds her address, and spies on her through the curtain-less windows of her apartment (cause who needs curtains when you live in the city?). Along with peeping Bookstore Joe, the audience learns more about Beck through the slow development of her character. The character development was one of the main elements that kept me invested. For example, we learn that Beck barely has time to write between her 18-hour workdays and pleasing her partying and social media-addicted friends. We also learn of her father’s overdose and that she’s infatuated with a guy named Benji, who couldn’t care less about their relationship. We learn her trusting aptitude attracts all the wrong people, Joe included. Through Joe, we see the complexities of Beck’s character and it becomes impossible not to root for her (especially when she drunkenly reads poetry at an open mic night after a hard day, talk about relatable). We yearn to see someone show her kindness, to care.
Unfortunately, that person is the radical prince-charming Joe. Bookstore Joe’s all about protecting what he perceives as harmless. He’s all about saving objects and people he deems worthy. The show makes sure to hammer this point in the pilot with his dialogue and the repetition of the word “save.” He’s all about manners, chivalry, and applies divine judgement to all of the terrible people in Beck’s life. In his unreliable narration, Joe is Beck’s hero protecting her from the vaping douchebags, social media queens, and the adulterous bosses. However, we find his character just as complex as Beck through his relationship with the teen next door, Paco.
Often times, Paco will sit in the apartment complex’s hallway reading a book Joe loaned him while Paco’s mother and her boyfriend fight or loudly fornicate inside his apartment. Joe shows empathy for Paco by offering him food, trips to the bookstore, and lessons on mending book spines. Despite these bonding sessions, we become increasingly aware through Joe’s narration and perception that he is just as lonely as Beck. They both extend love to others—Beck with the care she shows her friends, Joe with his love of Beck—yet their love is not reciprocated. Joe’s realization of their shared loneliness combined with their coincidental and chance meeting at a subway station depicts these two characters as fated beings—a sinister take on soulmates when one happens to be an obsessive stalker.
While the characters in You mainly drove my investment in the pilot, the show struck me with its spin on the elements of mystery. We see an inversion of the investigation process. Instead of an investigation of the suspect, it’s an investigation of the victim through Joe’s stalking. Also, we’re brought into the cognitive process of a stalker, through the use of voice-overs, we see how Joe justifies his criminality. The show doesn’t use voice-overs to simply repeat facts we can clearly see on the screen—a fatal flaw in utilizing voice overs. Instead, we get tidbits of information we wouldn’t otherwise know such as secrets Joe discovers during a search through Beck’s laptop after he trespasses into her apartment.
Suspense is built through the timing of the background music. When Joe taps into his stalker tendencies, when he is following someone from behind, or when Joe has moments alone with Paco, a thrilling score sets a suspenseful ambiance. The score paired with cool lighting was able to make the cellar of the bookstore (where Joe keeps all the priceless first editions) feel eerie and ominous.
The structure of the bookstore is also a perfect parallel to Joe himself. Above ground, on the surface level, Joe appears to be an amiable, normal guy. Sinking to deeper levels below ground, Joe lets his habit of protecting go to extremes. In general, the show loves its parallels. Quick cuts back and forth between two scenes display Joe saving a ruined book spine paralleled with Joe protecting Beck by assaulting and kidnapping Benji. There are parallels between Joe and his father—the original bookstore owner who taught Joe all about books—as he instructs Paco on book repair. There are parallels between Paco and young Joe in a flashback, as both play the role of apprentice. Beck is a parallel to books as Joe feels the need to protect both. As a linguistic plus, the words “Beck” and “book” hold similar spellings. Symbolically and linguistically, the show reiterates Joe’s views of Beck as his prized possession. In his twisted concept of love, all he desires is giving Beck the life she deserves revealing his character’s motivation.
One of the most fascinating elements to the show is that the clues are reserved for Beck to piece together, not the audience. We must stand by and wait for her to uncover the truth of the new danger in her life although we have all the answers. We watch as she searches her purse for her lost phone knowing Joe has stolen it. Upon Joe and Beck’s second meeting, Joe slips up and says Beck is a poet—a fact she hasn’t verbally divulged. He lies to cover the slip up, but we know he has snooped through her computer and read her work. We know he was hiding in the crowd while she performed poetry at an open mic night.
Overall, I surprisingly found myself enjoying You although I began the pilot feeling skeptical. It’s a show that reminds us our privacy is only an illusion. You portrays how sometimes someone from the outside looking in can see our lives more clearly than we can. But the show isn’t perfect. It has typical elements of Lifetime content where many of the male characters are terrible people (except for my boy Paco). In the show’s current stage, stalking is romanticized. The show gets away with this, for now, by having Joe as the narrator as all events are filtered by his obsessed perceptions.
Since it’s only the first episode, I applaud You for making me want more. For making me want answers to various questions: Will Beck catch onto Joe and buy some curtains? Will Beck gain the freedom to navigate this disappointing world on her own without Joe’s protection? Will Paco become a protégé stalker? Will Bookstore Joe eventually have a police investigation on his trail? The pilot was a great start and left the plot’s possibilities wide open.
Another door’s closed until next time!
— Kayla Chambers, Art & Design Editor; Layout Editor