Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
8 January 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 11:15am

The best thing about Netflix’s You is its mean sense of humour

Through Joe’s sardonic narration, the show displays a rare eagerness to ridicule its own characters.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Joe Goldberg will happily commit federal crimes and betray his closest friends to get what he wants, but he wouldn’t let that stop him from feeling morally superior to everyone he knows. An educated, literary New Yorker who works in a deliberately shabby bookshop, he obsessively stalks a one-time customer, Beck (Elizabeth Lail), manipulating her into becoming his girlfriend, before picking off her friends one by one, to ensure her never competes for her attention. But those friends are rich, hyper-privileged, narcissistic, attention-seeking personality vacuums – so what jury would convict him?

As a pulpy crime thriller, the Netflix series You does what it says on the tin – offering surprise twists, drip-fed reveals, a magnetic villain in Joe (Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley), the horrible suspense of knowing more than his clueless victims, and satisfyingly gory murders (well, at least 50 per cent of the time – while men are poisoned, stabbed and pushed off buildings before our eyes, all the violence against women happens off screen). But its sparklingly cruel sense of humour is what makes it compulsively watchable – through Joe’s sardonic narration (always addressed to Beck), the show displays a rare eagerness to ridicule its own characters.

Take Benji, Beck’s ex, a boarding school-bred, constantly partying sexist. He is the CEO of artisanal beverage company, lies about having read On The Road, and is, in Joe’s words, “a waste of hair”. Or Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell), the orthorexic heiress to a seemingly infinite JD Salinger fortune, who splits her time between IV vitamin treatments, geothermal mud masks and cutting down her friends. “I can’t have any fast food,” she whines. “And if I drink, it has to be a high PH, you know, like Ketel One or Goose and pear juice.”

There’s the casually racist Annika, and Lynn, “a dark cavern where conversations go to die”. There’s the literary agent trying to seduce young writers with coke in the back of his limo. (“He’s been clean since 9/11!” a friend protests. “When it happened, he was in an airport!”) Hari Nef gives a winning performance as the incredibly annoying yet somehow fundamentally likable Blythe, a supposedly brilliant writer who says things like, “Sorry I’m late, there was this essay in the Believer that would not let go of me,” and “Percival, back from the ashram? Tell me everything!”

“I wonder what our kids would have been like,” Joe wonders. “They’d have grown up reading, not glued to iPads, and we definitely wouldn’t have named them things like Gulliver or Blaze or Misti with an ‘i’”. Joe’s poisonous disdain for everyone around him is a tonally faultless parody of the kind of cultured, supposedly progressive guy so in love with his own intelligence and empathy that he can condemn the ethical failings of everyone around him, whilst manipulating and condescending to the women in his life. Watching Beck and her friends chat light-heartedly about The Bachelor, he rolls his eyes, and thinks, “Sometimes I swear I’m the only real feminist you know.” Perhaps the most damning indictment of his superficial personality comes in the form of a compliment from Beck: “There’s not an ounce of falseness in you. I mean, you drink Cafe Bustelo and you own starch.”

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

As much as you hate Joe, you root for him: You survives on the tension the audience feels between knowing Joe is a remorseless, violent misogynist, and finding him funny and breezily charming. At times, you almost willingly forget everything terrible he’s done – the deliberate use of rom-com tropes and dialogue lures you into a false sense of security. The script plays with the knowledge that worrying, obsessive behaviour is often sold as romance in the movies: after breaking into Beck’s apartment, and hiding in her shower when she arrives home unexpectedly, Joe thinks, “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting in jams like this.”

Content from our partners
Harnessing breakthrough thinking
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate

Any serious messages about gender relations and the dangerous narcissism of self-professed Nice Guys is too deeply buried in sensationalism, and too thickly coated in villainous charisma, to be taken seriously – but who needs didacticism when there’s so much fun to be had?

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown