A digital dating nightmare about hyper-literate hipsters.
On Netflix | 2018 | TV-MA | 1 season, 10 episodes
Genre: Erotic Thriller, Crime Drama
Why I watched: TBH, your What-to-Watch List writers are 100% the target demographic for this show (read: white millennial female city dwellers). We all heard the hype about this Lifetime original from friends and on Twitter, and eagerly awaited its arrival to Netflix. We all binged over the holidays, and oh. my. word. We are obsessed (too soon?) and decided we all wanted to weigh in!
You might also like: There are a lot of great men in the world and in television . . . just not in the shows we are recommending today 🙈!Bravo's Dirty John is adapted from the sensational true crime podcast of the same name, created by the Los Angeles Times and Wondery in 2017. Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, Nashville) plays gorgeous, wealthy, thrice-married Newport Beach interior designer Debra Newell. Soft-spoken, kind, and a little too committed to seeing the best in everyone, Debra falls for Dr. John Meehan—hard. But something isn't quite right about John. He just seems, well, a little dirty. This real life love story quickly turns into a real life horror story. But trust us: you've got to hang in there until the end. It's worth it.
While the 1990s were definitely the heyday of the erotic thriller (think Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction), the past five years have marked something of a resurgence for the genre. In each contemporary offering—from Gone Girl (2014) to the Fifty Shades franchise (Freed is on HBO)—we're met by a noir-ish story of criminal intrigue, marked by irrational romantic attachments and plot twists. While You is certainly part of this tradition, it offers us an unexpected adjustment to the formula: Somehow, it is much easier to sympathize with Joe (Penn Badgley), the stalker who serves as our narrator, than it is with his victim, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). And that, friends, is one of the more subtly creepy parts of the whole series.
The series begins when charming and handsome bookstore manager Joe meets aspiring writer Beck. After a brief flirtation that would have been a meet cute were this a romantic comedy, the two part ways. But that's not the end of their story. Using only the copy of her credit card receipt, Joe finds Beck online. The viewer watches in horror as the young woman's entire social media history flashes across the screen. With shocking ease, Joe uses the information that Beck has published to her Instagram and Facebook accounts to become exactly the kind of guy she is looking for. Reader, it works.
Weirdly, Beck comes off as a distinctly unsympathetic victim. While of course she does not deserve to be stalked or manipulated (no one does!), it's uncomfortably easy to dislike her. She seems gullible, shallow, and dishonest. This is a curious choice on the show's part, especially considering that her character resembles so many in the Lifetime network's base, the series' original home before being distributed by Netflix. (It will stream exclusively on Netflix next season.) She's blonde, white, upper middle-class, and beautiful, with very fancy friends, such as Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell). ("Like J.D. Salinger?” Joe asks. Beck answers, “I mean, yes.”) But the show subtly invites us to root against Beck, and we find ourselves acquiescing. Which means, of course, that we've been just as taken in by Joe's charming albeit murderous personality as our antiheroine.
Lifetime might have turned an uncharacteristically critical eye on its viewers with this show, but the network was also incredibly savvy and generous to them in the casting of it. Mitchell (#TeamPeach!) and Badgely offer up superb performances, and it's gratifying to watch the evolution of these actors who first found fame on Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl, respectively. It's also part of the reason we find it easier at times to root for Peach or Joe, despite how horrible they are: we feel like we know them, whereas Beck seems like a stranger. Actor Elizabeth Lail is a relative newcomer; we don't have a history with her the way we do with the two antagonists.
Another way the show plays on our loyalties is by making Joe the narrator. Caroline Kepnes, author of the book on which the series is based, has explained that she made that choice to represent our current moment, in which social media is always available to us and always presenting a skewed version of reality. We, as consumers of social media, are trapped in the position of reading a story told by an unreliable narrator. Beck doesn't really know Joe, but Joe—despite his thorough stalking—doesn't really know Beck either. And that's the terrifying and also realistic part of the drama: He's someone you might meet online, someone who might like one of your photos on Instagram. He might seem perfect, and so might you. But in reality. . . . Well, you'll just have to watch and see!
Birdbox You is the must-watch winter offering from Netflix. Buckle up, buttercups. You're in for a treat!
Happy streaming! (Because you might want to avoid bookstores for awhile.)
Liz, Tess, and Grace