It’s been a long time since I’ve written about TV shows (I tend to stick to movies), but frankly, I haven’t had such a visceral reaction to a piece of media since the first time I read “Gone Girl.” “You”—bizarrely situated at the nexus of psychological thriller, romantic comedy, and outright horror—is like nothing I’ve ever seen on TV. On one hand, it’s lurid, over-the-top trash; on the other, it’s an eerie indictment of contemporary culture that ends up far more nuanced than it believes itself to be.
When we first meet him, narrator Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is a charming, sensitive New York bookstore clerk who’s longing to meet the right girl. As soon as aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) strays into his shop, though, it’s not love—but rather obsession—at first sight. Joe sets to work tracking her on social media, insinuating himself into her life, and removing all obstacles to a relationship with her…by whatever means necessary. Things promptly descend into a grotesque, beautiful, and ever-more-watchable spiral of stalking, betrayal, murder, and self-deception: Joe certainly does get the girl, but at a terrible cost. (Season 2, for its part, follows a roughly similar arc, but takes place in Los Angeles and stars the rather more self-confident Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti)).
This is the kind of show it’s very easy to pigeonhole as being about one particular thing or another. And that sort of analysis is all well and good, as far as it goes. Yes, it’s about the dangers of technology. Yes, it’s about toxic masculinity. Yes, it’s a dark satire of the problems faced by inordinately privileged people. But I think that whether or not the showrunners are even aware of it, there’s more going on beneath the surface.
It seems to me that, at bottom, “You” is an interrogation of the essential character of—with all respect to the New York Times—modern love. And this modern love, we come to see, is a fundamentally performative phenomenon. Over and over again, the dynamics of romance in “You” play out across Facebook pages, Instagram feeds, and Tinder profiles, as characters curate pristine images of themselves for potential suitors. These technological platforms are the tools by which Joe learns about and stalks his quarries—but, crucially, they are also the spaces within which the women he pursues present carefully curated versions of themselves.
This profound sense of “self-commodification” bleeds from the public into the private. In every “You” character’s life, sex—and romance in general—becomes a transactional and experiential thing, undertaken casually, rather like a fancy dinner or a trip to a posh tourist destination (and subsequently evaluated in the company of friends and onlookers). At bottom, “You” is a haunting depiction of a world that has lost the capacity to think of love in remotely self-sacrificial terms. Here, all relationships are necessarily subordinated to the cause of self-actualization (in Joe’s case, to horrifying effect, when his preferred form of “self-actualization” proves irreconcilable with another’s).
The first-person framing of the show drives this home with genuine force: by telling the story from Joe’s perspective, the show forces the viewer to confront their self-centered impulses head-on. How many of us haven’t, at one time or another, thought of other people—even those we love—as supporting characters in the story we tell ourselves, rather than as protagonists in their own right? (It’s worth noting that this sort of narrative device—that is, the possibility of audience self-identification with an aberrant character like Joe—runs strikingly counter to prevailing pop-culture headwinds, which tend toward either bland moralism or avoidance of moral issues altogether.) This is all quite uncomfortable, but in a fruitful way: in fearless acknowledgement of the problem—the utter self-absorption of this age—comes the first step toward healing.
To be sure, not everyone will enjoy this show: if you’re not up to watching 20 hours of a rather nightmarish take on “500 Days of Summer,” “You” might not be for you. But to my mind, the show is that rarest of things: a piece of pop culture that manages to capture the anxieties of an age without self-consciously doing so. And that is something worth celebrating.