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Review: Lifetime's psychological thriller 'You' is a 21st-century take on an old stalking theme

Review: Lifetime's psychological thriller 'You' is a 21st-century take on an old stalking theme
Elizabeth Lail and Penn Badgley in the creepy, addictive thriller "You," which premieres Sunday on Lifetime. (Lifetime)

Part psychological thriller and part social commentary, Lifetime’s “You” follows unassuming New York bookstore manager Joe (Penn Badgley) as he stalks aspiring writer and grad student Beck (Elizabeth Lail). “We were meant for each other,” he tells himself as he peers through her curtain-less apartment windows days after meeting her over a brief transaction at the bookstore.

Creepy, addictive and full of dry humor about social media, millennials and dating in the age of Tinder, “You,” which premieres Sunday, twists the usual victim-perp plotline — she’s terrorized, he’s sickeningly aroused — by placing them both squarely in the #MeToo era.

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Joe is a dangerous, delusional mess, but is he any worse than the letchy professor who demands sex for a paid position at the university, the cheating, vapid boyfriend or the bestselling author who feigns interest in her work as he runs his hand up her skirt?

Not really. The other predators and abusers don’t need to move through the shadows or hide because their brand of harassment is socially acceptable. It’s just the way things are — the price a young woman has to pay to get ahead.

“You” cleverly draws those parallels, which allows it to deviate from the standard stalker story in all sorts of interesting ways.

Without spoiling the skin-crawling plot here, it’s helpful to know that Beck isn’t entirely clueless about the motive of the men around her. She too has a game to play, and part of the suspense here is who will end up outsmarting who to win in the end. And what does winning even look like in a story as twisted as “You”?

The 10-episode series, created by Sera Gamble ("The Magicians") and Greg Berlanti ("Riverdale"), wastes no time in portraying Joe as a brilliant psychopath who sees himself as the hero in this story. We’re shown over the first couple episodes that even as he furiously researches the object of his affections on and offline, he takes time during his stalking runs to help old ladies down stairs or mentor the neglected boy who lives in his run-down apartment building.

The story initially is told mainly from Joe’s point of view as he becomes obsessed with Beck. He’s going to “save her,” he thinks, from all the other bad men out there. As he spies on Beck through her apartment windows where she suspiciously conducts her life fully exposed, he says to himself, “Jesus, it’s like you’ve never seen a horror movie or the news.”

The weirdness here, however, doesn’t just come from Joe’s sexual fantasies about Beck, his knack for hiding in plain sight or the convincing way in which he justifies his most egregious actions. It’s that “You” moves in and out of modern romance territory when Beck and Joe start dating, and there’s an undeniable chemistry between the two that’s almost endearing. It just seems … wrong.

Ultimately, it feeds into a larger picture that’s far more complicated and wrought than initially imagined.

The series, based on a novel by Caroline Kepnes, also stars John Stamos as therapist Dr. Nicky, Luca Padovan as Joe’s young neighbor Paco and Zach Cherry as the seemingly clueless bookstore employee Ethan.

“You” could use a few more episodes from Beck’s point of view early in the series, but it’s already been greenlighted for a second season, so perhaps she’ll steer more of the narrative next time around.

Still, “You” offers a refreshing 21st-century take on predatory men and the women they target, flipping the tables to leave viewers wondering who exactly holds the power here.

“You”

Where: Lifetime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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