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'You' brings novel twists to Lifetime's disarming stalker series

Men have been stalking women in Lifetime movies practically from the get-go, but that conceit receives a ver...

Posted: Sep 8, 2018 3:20 PM
Updated: Sep 8, 2018 3:20 PM

Men have been stalking women in Lifetime movies practically from the get-go, but that conceit receives a very contemporary twist in "You," a darkly comic series -- based on Caroline Kepnes' bestselling book -- that comes from super-producer Greg Berlanti. At times creepy, often absurd, it's not necessarily the show for the #MeToo era, but it's certainly a good reminder to go change all your web passwords.

The bizarre hook to "You" comes from its point of view, which follows the whole unfolding girl-meets-stalker relationship from the heavily narrated perspective of the latter, Joe ("Gossip Girl's" Penn Badgley), who first encounters Beck (Elizabeth Lail) in the bookstore where he works. It's obsession at first sight, prompting Joe to consume every social-media clue he can find, before moving on to more invasive forms of electronic snooping, all -- in his twisted mind -- to demonstrate his undying adoration.

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There's an element of "Dexter" in the narration, but in a way "You" owes a sizable debt to "Thief of Hearts," a pretty awful 1980s artifact, in which a high-class thief steals a woman's diary, then uses her innermost thoughts to seduce her. Here, the methods of intrusion involve hacked phones and mouse clicks, but the effect is no less invasive.

What makes "You" a bit different, and compulsively watchable, is the fact Joe is at times less than adept in implementing his various schemes, stumbling into awkward and hard-to-explain situations from which he must extricate himself. The process also includes dealing with an assortment of characters (some malevolent, others simply odd) who are already in Beck's life, who serve as impediments to his pursuit of happily ever after.

Overseen by the aforementioned Berlanti (the CW's go-to whiz kid, responsible for "Riverdale," "The Flash" and "Arrow") and Sera Gamble, "You" receives a significant lift from its clever writing and Badgley's wry, arched-eyebrow delivery. While the focus is on Joe and Beck's iPhone-crossed romance, there are disarmingly funny moments, like the suggestion a downtrodden person has a "Trump just took Pennsylvania" look, or the way one seemingly triumphant moment goes spectacularly awry.

"It's like you've never seen a horror movie," Joe says, speaking to Beck through narration when she stands half-dressed near her window, later responding to her text to a friend by insisting, "I'm not a maybe. I'm the one."

As noted, there's an uncomfortable aspect to the material, given how violated Beck is, whether she realizes it or not. The "dreamy stalker" is a wrinkle we could have probably done without.

Again, though, "You" plays with those edges -- and at least makes them interesting -- by refusing to make Beck a helpless damsel or wholesale victim, at least through the five episodes previewed.

Underneath it all, the series not only explores one particularly misguided mind but the very notion of privacy, and the perils of not safeguarding it in an age where practically everyone seems to be oversharing.

For Lifetime, "You" -- already renewed for a second season -- thus feels like a shrewd evolution of its much-lampooned women-in-jeopardy formula into something more ambitious, wittier, and in its jaundiced way, just a little bit unnerving.

In that, it's a cautionary tale with an unconventional bad guy -- a reminder that you can't always judge a book, or bookstore owner, by its tousled hair and beguiling smile.

"You" premieres Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.

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