The #MeToo movement, revealing and cathartic as it has been, has also felt profoundly disorienting. There’s little that hasn’t been dredged up and laid bare on a mental dissection table for study. Who are these people we thought we knew? What should we make of experiences we hadn’t made anything of before? And as consumers of pop culture, what role have we played in it all? How badly have our own concepts of love and boundaries been warped and corrupted?
“You,” a thrilling new series from Lifetime, is a remarkably sharp attempt to grapple with those questions. It begins in an Upper East Side bookstore, where Joe (Penn Badgley, “Gossip Girl”), the manager, encounters Beck (Elizabeth Lail, “Once Upon a Time”) a doe-eyed MFA student in search of some Paula Fox essays. It’s the meet-cute that launched a thousand romances — they gossip about the other customers, lapse into playful banter and trade reading recommendations.
But it doesn’t take long inside Joe’s inner monologue for us to realize that our sensitive bookstore owner is in fact r/TheRedPill personified, a deeply insecure creep with a toxic savior complex that deems Beck a damsel worthy of his rescue. It might be a touch on the nose that Beck’s given name is Guinevere.
Oh, how quickly one fleeting interaction turns into a dangerous obsession. Joe has soon pored through Beck’s social media, found her apartment, studied her relationships and learned her routines, all while making grand, improbable conclusions about the sort of person she must be: “Every account is set to public — you want to be seen.” Most frightening is the ease with which he’s able to convince himself that everything he’s doing is just fine. Hiding in Beck’s shower, after her early return cuts his apartment break-in short, Joe laughs the whole thing off in a voice-over. “I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that guys like me are always getting in jams like this.”
It’s a smart indictment of our culture — the Western canon has always reassured the Joes of the world that nice guys win in the end. In one telling scene, he brings home a copy of “Don Quixote” for his forlorn kid neighbor. “It’s about a guy who believes in chivalry, so he decides to become an old-school knight,” Joe tells him. Um, aren’t you forgetting something, Joe? The Man of La Mancha was delusional.
“You” is sometimes weakened by its tendency toward the absurd — let’s just say there’s a giant plexiglass book repair cell in the basement of Joe’s store that may or may not function as a makeshift torture chamber. But in other moments, “You” is buoyed by its disinterest in being tethered to reality or subtlety. It’s what keeps the show exciting and gives it the freedom to wander around New York, poking fun of Brooklynite caricatures, like Beck’s insufferable ex-boyfriend Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci, “The Story of Luke”), whose line of artisanal soda is, in his words, “legit, period.”
And for all the fun “You” is, it manages to stay terrifying and familiar. In the wake of #MeToo, some men have lamented that they’re being forced to reassess their every move and gesture lest they be misinterpreted. It’s ironic, because, as “You” illustrates, that’s exactly the sort of mental calculus women have to perform all the time. When Beck pays for her book with a credit card, Joe decides it must be a deliberate invitation: “You have enough cash to cover this, but you want me to know your name.” There is nothing quite like the terror of moving through the world constantly wondering whether the quiet guy at the bookstore might really be a deranged chauvinist.
If “You” stays smart and probing, it could function as a thoughtful look at romance in the digital age. At the very least, the pilot offers a few pointers upfront: Keep your blinds closed and your Instagram private.