Boy meets girl. Boy stalks girl.
The simple set-up to the simply-titled You, Netflix’s stalker drama, makes for unremarkable yet wickedly addictive viewing.
Likeable Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) falls for the whimsical, struggling writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) after a very brief bookstore exchange, but as the credits roll the title card fills with blood: sinister signposting for the freshly-minted couple.
Sandwiched between the meme-spawning Bird Box and the game-changing Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Boxing Day release You is an odd, fun concoction that blends modern concerns with age-old teen TV tropes: where attractive twenty-somethings balance relationships with threats from hidden antagonists.
It’s no mistake that You has a cast of Gossip Girl (Badgley) and Pretty Little Liars graduates (Shay Mitchell, as the ferocious Peach, Beck’s friend and tormentor). Only this time the protagonist is also the menace as Joe’s psycho-behaviour escalates from cyber-stalking to bludgeoning anyone standing in the way of his happily ever after with Beck.
‘”Every account set to public… you want to be seen, heard, known… I obliged,” Joe says in a creepy and intrusive narration, minutes into the captivating pilot.
An inventive twist that launches a series that sadly struts along familiar ground: Bandersnatch this is not.
Yet, with the creative team of uber-producer Greg Berlanti and Supernatural-vet Sera Gamble, You is expertly executed, even if it occasionally panders to its millennial demographic, with prosecco brunches and social media crises interrupting the predator-prey thriller.
The fun of this series lies in the secret encounters, Joe – disguised in Hollywood’s camouflage: a baseball cap – observes Beck with terrible men, nights out with vapid friends, and on trips, like a Dickens Festival (cap swapped for a Peaky Blinders-style newsboy).
Shy of winking at the camera, Badgley deftly milks these scenes for all their absurdity with witty monologues and tension-relieving moments that border on physical comedy: what happens outside Beck’s window is best left unsaid.
Badgley gives a knife-edge performance, capable of switching from psychotic rage to effortless coolness; a task required every episode as each instalment hinges on the tension of Joe being exposed. Momentum is carefully built across the ten-part first season, avoiding the runtime bloat that plagues even the best of Netflix’s output.
Although, attempts to flesh-out Joe’s backstory fall flat, as does his relationship with his young neighbour, Paco (Luca Padovan) which grows to be a more unsettling pairing than Beck and Joe. Paco’s abusive stepfather occasionally stumbles into frame, in a misguided attempt to humanise Joe.
Beck is an altogether more fascinating, complicated character. A proxy for the social media generation, Beck will be easily identifiable to all those hiding behind an Instagram account. Lail delivers a breakthrough performance in a demanding part, that calls for her to be equal parts messy, naïve and effortlessly charming.
Like a Mail Online article, You bullet points its most interesting ideas without substantial follow-up, instead it gets distracted by salacious details (just look at the silly on-screen texts) or scandalous actions, such as Beck’s traumatic childhood. But, also like a good tabloid story, You never fails to be slightly surreal and constantly entertaining.
You is available on Netflix now