Why “You” is Television’s Most Important Trash

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Written by: Eric Banks

Art by: Alyssa Luongo

What words would you use to describe your typical romance movie? While many would label this genre as heartwarming, sweet, or romantic, a growing majority has started to call these films problematic. For years, people have been accusing films like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey of portraying deeply disturbing behavior as romantic, as they claim that these films seem to glamorize men who emotionally manipulate women. In many ways, they’re not wrong; characters like Christian Grey and Edward Cullen often treat their love interests like garbage, but  people give them a pass because they’re “bad boys” played by very handsome actors. That being said, I feel like most people are smart enough to recognize these potentially problematic films as an over-the-top fantasy, and enjoy them as harmless guilty pleasures. However, it would still be nice if there were a way for someone to challenge the toxicity of the romance genre, especially as a way to inform the few people who risk taking these films seriously. This is where Sara Gamble’s show You comes in, as this satirical thriller is a brilliant, if at times campy, deconstruction of this much loathed genre. 

You is about the love life of Penn Badgley’s character Joe Goldberg, who at first seems like a great guy. He’s funny, charming, and just an all around likable dude. The only problem with Joe is that he happens to be a psychotic stalker, and he defines love as obsessing over some pretty girl he met on the street. This warped view of romance means Joe is perfectly willing to commit a number of horrific crimes in the name of love, some of which include breaking and entering, theft, kidnapping, and murder. Joe also encounters numerous obstacles on his quest for love, such as douchebag boyfriends, loan sharks, and even other stalkers. On top of all of that, he must also ensure that the women in his life don’t catch on to the fact that he really isn’t the perfect guy. 

Upon first glance, You may seem like your prototypical trashy tv show, and in many respects, it is. I mean, this show has out-there plot twists, over the top melodrama, and an occasional line of cringe worthy dialogue. However, while You has all the trappings of your typical Lifetime guilty pleasure, the writers actually manage to imbue the show with a smart sense of satire. This entire story is told from Joe’s perspective, meaning he is always justifying his horrible actions through his wildly entertaining inner-monologue. For example, Joe will tell his audience that breaking into a woman’s home isn’t so much an invasion of privacy as it is an attempt to get to know her better. This style of storytelling accomplishes two things, both of which serve as  brilliant commentary on society’s attitude towards toxicity in romance. For starters, being made aware of Joe’s inner monologue gives viewers an entertaining look into the disturbing mindset of your typical problematic rom-com lead. Joe often frames his “questionable behavior” as that of an old-school romantic romantic, at one point literally comparing himself to the lead of your typical romantic comedy. This window into Joe’s mindset serves as a darkly hilarious way to deconstruct the kind of “nice guy” who stars in a romantic comedy, as it showcases just how pathetic and disturbed these kind of people would be in real life. However, You is more than just a jab at rom-com leads, as it also forces viewers to hold themselves accountable for accepting toxic behavior in romance films.  

As I said before, Joe is in many respects a like-able protagonist, as long as you can get past the fact that he is a serial killer. Penn Badgely brings a lot of charm to this role, and at times plays the character as if he were were the lead in an actual romantic comedy. Badgley’s portrayal of the character has led to many viewers accusing the show of glamorizing Joe’s actions, with many stating that the writers are making it easy for viewers to identify with this terrifyingly toxic character. I myself have to disagree with this sentiment, because while the show does present Joe as a charismatic individual, it never sugarcoats how disturbing his behavior really is. You isn’t afraid to show viewers just how grizzly the nature of some of Joe’s crimes are, nor is it unwilling to remind us to what extent Joe is violating these women’s privacy. This means that audience members who sympathize with Joe will quickly have the rug pulled out from under them when they are reminded that he is a deranged lunatic, forcing them to reexamine just how willing they are to forgive the questionable behavior of a typical rom-com lead. So while it may be easy to write this show off as soapy trash, I genuinely believe that You is offering up some very clever social commentary about the problematic depiction of romance in film, while also being a hugely enjoyable thriller that is just campy enough to keep your interest on the screen.