Thanks to Netflix, 'YOU,' a Show From 2018, Is 2019's First Hit

The addictive guilty-pleasure thriller 'YOU' went under the radar in September, but Netflix is giving it new life.

Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail star in 'YOU'

Image via Lifetime

Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail star in 'YOU'

In 2018, YOU was one of the most slept on—and most fun—shows of the year. It premiered in September, on a regular degular cable channel, Lifetime, and the season one finale aired a staggering nine weeks later in mid-November, a release and rollout straight out of 2011. One short week into 2019, though, anyone who wasn’t privy before would be forgiven to think YOU is a brand-new Netflix original that dropped over the holidays somewhere in between Bird Box and Bandersnatch. If a series airs anywhere outside of the Big Five (HBO, AMC, FX, Showtime and, um, NBC?) does it even truly exist until Netflix? Apparently not.

A series taking on a new and ultimately more fulfilling life after hitting home video is hardly a new concept. Newer shows drifting unnoticed at large until they hit a common denominator streaming service is how most of them gain legs in this post-apocalyptic TV dystopia we’re living in, and as for classic shows that a new generation is warming to, well, did you hear Netflix almost lost Friends?!

Still, it’s curious to watch a majority of my timeline react to YOU not as if they’re just discovering it, but like it didn’t exist until now, with the common descriptor being “that new Netflix show” (not unlike Black Mirror’s Channel 4 to Netflix path before it.) Granted, some of the confusion probably stems from the fact that Youis a Netflix show now. A second season was initially renewed by Lifetime before being dropped and then picked up by Netflix, where it was already an original internationally to begin with.

This is a good thing, mostly. For one, the show’s pulpy and propulsive narrative is built for binging, (this coming from a guy who sticks to a two-three episode per sitting restraint—anything more just becomes narrative soup and impossible to distinguish episodically in my opinion but that’s my idiosyncrasy to bear). Amidst the trappings of an airport potboiler, YOU cleverly weaponizes expectations, casting proto-internet boyfriend Dan Humphrey as Joe, a toxic lecherous creep who preys on a cast of narcissists so loathsome no one is really “good.” The show’s whole aesthetic is being self-awarely over-the-top and soapy, but it’s that self-awareness that also makes room for sharp dialog and moments so in on the joke that they’re hilarious to laugh both with and at (Joe’s tweets as a rich bro he’s kidnapped, for one). The commentary on contemporary social media and the way it has informed our personas is actually incisive; Peach Salinger is the MVP of course but everything about, say, Beck’s influencer friend Anikka, is remarkably dead-on. We all know a few Becks who curate a more fulfilled life on IG, as well as entitled, monied douches who harp about bullshit like artisanal soda. What’s more, in some fleeting moments, it’s actually deceptively sweet. On the surface, the turns Beck and Joe’s relationship take in episodes seven through nine would actually provide the spine for a very solid rom-com if those turns weren’t, you know, borne out of deception, manipulation and murder. Part of the genius of the show is the way it doesn’t shortchange building these two into an actual relationship (or at least, explaining how and why Beck could be so blinded) in service of all the murder, frame-jobs and ridiculous book cages.

All of that, anchored by a truly committed Penn Badgley, made for a show that I knew would be timeline catnip if it could just find the audience. I’m not trying to preach from a high horse here. It’s partly my job to be aware of more TV shows than most, and despite noting via coverage in the likes of EW and The Ringer that this show sounded right up my alley, I didn’t get to it until around the time it was wrapping up on air, when I only had one person to commiserate in exclamations with when say, John Stamos showed up in what Complex alum Kerensa Cadenas described as “therapist drag,” or when Joe broke into Peach’s estate or anything involving Peach really. TV viewing is like the food pyramid; YOU fills the junk food void I’d been searching for since the similarly delightfully ridiculous Revenge ended. It might be a little more complex than that too, offering hints of early Dexter in the way it prioritizes the perspective of the toxic creep who continues to evade capture. I’m glad it’s getting the attention it deserves. If I’d bothered to make a personal top list, YOU would make it somewhere near the middle; if I’d seen it before Complex finalized our 2018 top 30 list, I’d have fought for it to make it somewhere near the bottom.

While Netflix is doing wonders for season one though, I’m curious, and a bit wary, about what the jump to the streaming giant will do for season two. The boundless creative freedom offered over there is great in theory, but that endless rope usually comes around to hang the production. For every Stranger Things or To All the Boys I've Loved Before, there’s a bounty of Netflix originals that despite being buzzworthy, end up being hampered by mediocrity. Season one of YOU is taut, a master class in pacing and execution that a few so-called prestige shows could stand to learn from. None of us may have actually watched this on Lifetime with plebeian commercial breaks, but we benefited from that structure nonetheless. Freed from the confines of a 42-minute runtime though, will the narrative still be as sharp? Theoretically. But then I think of the Riverdale creative team, who turned in one of the most arresting pilots in recent memory on The CW only to pivot to Netflix for its companion Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a show that bored me to tears for several reasons but episodes running 20 minutes longer than they need to didn’t help. Thankfully, showrunner Sera Gamble's early comments on the jump suggest she and her writers won't lose the plot, figuratively and literally.

The belated success of YOU is another in a long and wide-ranging list of Netflix’s vise grip on the monoculture. Hopefully it’s not another in a long list of squandered potential.

Latest in Pop Culture