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