In 2018, 495 scripted original series aired across hundreds of TV and streaming platforms from old-school terrestrial broadcast channels to Facebook Watch. In such a landscape, some gems inevitably get buried. Such is the story of “You,” a series based on Caroline Kepnes’ best-selling novel of the same name that launched a ten-part first season this fall on Lifetime. “You” is a savvy yet acidic undercutting of the two types of stories Lifetime is known for telling — romance and true crime — but it couldn't find an audience. Now “You” has been reborn on Netflix, where it has become one of Netflix’s current biggest hits. But moving the show from one platform to the other has exposed weaknesses in the series’ writing, leading to an undermining of the show’s central theme.
“You” is a creatively bonkers take on a standard Lifetime movie trope: woman meets charming man, woman trusts man, man turns out to be a monster. But “You” flips the narrative, telling the story from the point of view of Joe (Penn Badgley), the homicidal stalker boyfriend, whose newest obsession Beck (Elizabeth Lail) knows nothing of his past or his possessive behavior.
“You” is a creatively bonkers take on a standard Lifetime movie trope: woman meets charming man, woman trusts man, man turns out to be a monster.
As with all such tales, audiences figure out this romantic love story is too good to be true long before the heroine does. But by taking the story and telling it from the killer’s perspective, viewers are in on it from the start, changing how Joe’s actions are perceived. Expected, clichéd stereotypes are revealed to be creepy when viewed through the lens of a controlling man like Joe. This also changes how we think about Joe’s victim Beck, because the audience doesn’t identify with her. She is, after all, not us. She is “you.” Even when the show switches to Beck’s perspective in the final episodes, it feels almost too late for the audience to get in her corner or feel much sympathy for her fate.
The show is both unsettlingly creepy and riveting television. And its surprise ending, involving a past girlfriend the audience has assumed to be dead, gives the show’s next season a million new directions to go in.
By rights, “You” should have been Lifetime’s first big hit in ages. The channel put plenty of advertising dollars behind it, and my inbox can attest to the PR campaign. Lifetime was so sure it was going to be a hit, it greenlit a season two before season one even aired. And yet “You” pulled in barely .6 million viewers on average over the season. In the end, execs threw in the towel and sold off the promised second season to Netflix, along with season one for streaming.
That’s where the story gets interesting. This past week, the streaming service took the unprecedented step of releasing actual viewership numbers for several shows as part of its most recent quarterly earnings report. Though these numbers were not given in the traditional Nielsen format, according to Netflix, season one of “You” is on track to hit 40 million viewers in the first month, making it one of the streaming service’s most successful shows right now.
The show was caught in a catch-22. Those who would like it didn’t watch, those who watched, didn’t like it.
So why did the show find success on Netflix and not Lifetime? Part of it is expectations. Lifetime has spent nearly 40 years peddling what often feels like a misogynist’s idea of “women’s programming.” The network has been attempting to slowly rebrand, as fans of shows like “UnReal” already know. But there are so many shows now, on so many channels, “You” may simply have gotten lost, or been written off as little more than a rehabilitation project for a has-been heartthrob. (No offense, Penn.) Moreover, the audience who do tune into Lifetime aren’t looking for something that bitterly undermines their favorite programming. The show was caught in a catch-22. Those who would like it didn’t watch, those who watched, didn’t like it.
Stripped of any Lifetime baggage (the official hashtag is strikingly not #You, but #NetflixYou and #YouNetflix, as if to erase any trace of the original network that aired it) most Netflix users had no preconceived notions about the show when it appeared in their recommended lists.
Netflix clearly believes this is a success story for streaming. Releasing the numbers is a clear rebuttal to the accusations that viewers can’t find shows when they come to platform because the volume of options is so overwhelming. “You” couldn’t get noticed on Lifetime, but it can here. What once was lost, now is found.
One could argue audiences finding and loving the series is automatically a win. But the assumptions that allowed the show’s premise to work were designed for an audience that already understood the stereotypes. On Lifetime, viewers went in expecting to sympathize with the heroine, and the show’s bending of those tropes stuck out far more prominently. It felt more purposeful.
Stripped of the Lifetime branding, however, the weaknesses inherent in the show’s writing left “You” more open to misinterpretation. On Netflix, many viewers seem to see the series less as a response to standard romantic tropes and more the saga of a misunderstood anti-hero in the vein of “Dexter” or Walter White in “Breaking Bad” — but without the nuance that made both “Dexter” and “Breaking Bad” worth watching. So what if he’s a serial killer — he’s got angst! He’s not an abusive, controlling man, he’s just misunderstood! The audience response, especially among women, prompted star Penn Badgley to practically beg fans to stop asking him to stalk them.
It turns out, stripped of context, a dark satire merely reads as a replication of the tropes meant to be punctured. “You” was never meant to be a prestige drama, a complicated unpacking of a bad man with questionable morals. And it will be interesting to see if and how the show’s writers try to adjust in season two. Will “You” have to become more like the Lifetime films the show was originally trying to subvert?