Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 7, 2020

You

Filed under: television — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

On Christmas Eve, the NY Times ran an article about a Netflix series that caught my eye:

“You,” one of television’s more addictive treats, returns for a second season on Thursday. It has moved to a different shelf of the candy store — it’s now a Netflix series, after premiering on Lifetime — but it’s as tasty, and as bad for you, as ever.

The first season won a rabid following, and a lot of critical attention, for its clever fusion of the conventions of the romantic comedy with the conventions of the bluebeard serial-killer tale. As Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) — cute, courteous, literary and deranged — pursued his quest to be the perfect New York boyfriend, the bodies piled up, and the rom-com was shown to have been a horror story all along. The distance between the genres vanished.

Addictive is the right word. After my wife and I watched the first episode of Season One, we were hooked. With a superficial resemblance to “Dexter”, the Showtime series about a serial killer, it stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, the young, handsome, and amoral manager of an Upper East Side antiquarian bookstore who kills a bunch of people throughout the two-season series. Like “Dexter,” there is almost continuous voiceover as the main character ruminates on the challenges he must overcome in order to maintain a relationship with the women he meets and then falls in love with. When he runs into a rival for their affections or someone bent on keeping them apart, he does not think twice about murder. Unlike Dexter, who only killed people who deserved to be killed—usually for having beaten a rap like O.J. Simpson—Joe Goldberg’s standards are set at a lower bar. When someone gets in the way of consummating a romance, he becomes deadlier than a puff adder.

“You” got its title from a novel written by Caroline Kepnes, a 42-year old Brown University graduate. You understand why after reading the first paragraph:

YOU walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you’re wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?

These are the thoughts of Joe Goldberg as Guinevere Beck—the You—enters his store. The reference to “Charlotte’s Web” is a tip-off that Joe is a bibliophile. Called Beck by her friends, she is a writing major in Columbia University’s graduate school. Like the author, she is a Brown graduate whose best friends graduated with her. The best way to describe them is as characters from Lena Dunham’s “Girls” but much richer and much more obnoxious. The ringleader of this clique is named Peach Salinger, a descendant of J.D’s clan who lives in a mansion on the Upper East Side and spends much of her time and energy trying to convince Beck that she is too good for a measly bookstore manager.

“You” manages to combine elements that you’d never think possible. Besides being a portrait of a psychopath, it skewers the pretensions of Manhattan’s privileged quasi-bohemia. Besides Peach, there’s Benjamin “Benji” J. Ashby III, who Beck has been sleeping with at the time Joe becomes her suitor. As a committed and expert stalker, Joe is in the habit of finding out as much as he can about his heart’s desire before making his first move. When he spots Benji having sex with Beck through her ground-floor studio apartment window from across the street, it doesn’t take long for Joe to plot his rival’s demise. As is generally the case with his victims, Benji is a total phony. Like Peach, he is a trust fund bohemian who is trying to get an artisanal soda business off the ground. Artisanal soda? Brilliant.

The class distinctions between Joe, who for all we know never went to college, and this crowd almost make you cheer for him. When I was watching the first season of “You,” I mentioned to my wife that Joe reminded me of the eponymous character in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” In a film based on her novel, Matt Damon plays Tom Ripley, a New Yorker barely scraping by. His main talents seem to be buttering up to wealthy people who might help him put together some kind of career. Luckily for him, one rich bastard hires him to go to Italy and persuade his wastrel son Dickie, who lives on a yacht, to return to the USA. When Ripley’s mission fails largely because of his kowtowing to Dickie’s every whim, the father cuts off his funds. In desperation, Ripley kills the son and assumes his identity. Written in 1955, Highsmith’s novel is distinguished by her anti-hero’s ability to elude capture through his skills as a liar and a killer. Highsmith would have considered Caroline Kepnes a kindred spirit.

As for Kepnes, she acknowledged Highsmith’s influence in an interview with Book and Film Globe. When the interviewer said that Joe reminded him of Tom Ripley in the Patricia Highsmith series, she replied:

When people ask about writers you’d like to have coffee with, I always think of Patricia Highsmith. She is just so excellent with classism. Ripley can pass with these people. Dickie’s dad pays him to go to Europe. It’s exhilarating. In You, I wanted Joe to be someone who doesn’t want to win these people over. Joe doesn’t want to “fit in”. He won’t endorse that value system. He wants Beck to shun it.

In addition to skewering Manhattan’s rich kids who went to Ivy schools, Kepnes—like Highsmith—is great at spinning a Hitchcockian yarn. If you might recall, “Strangers on a Train,” one of Hitchcock’s classics, is based on a Highsmith novel. Such is the state of popular culture that you can only find something that good on Netflix rather than in a movie theater. In nominating “The Irishman”, now streaming on Netflix, as best film of 2019, I can also recommend “You” as the best television series of the year. It is a tour de force of writing, acting and direction. You better start watching it now or I’ll kill you.

 

3 Comments »

  1. Wait until you see Season 2 — it’s even better

    Comment by georgedestefano — January 9, 2020 @ 12:42 am

  2. Why are coastal liberals so obsessed with the New York Times? Can’t say I’ve ever seen a working class person outside of that cesspool read it.

    The Obama-Clintonite apparachtiks in DC and the old hippie burnouts in New York and San Fransisco must keep them in business.

    Comment by Chas — January 9, 2020 @ 11:33 am

  3. Chas, I see that you are using a Cambodia IP address that was marked “suspicious” in an IP lookup. Recently, I deleted all the addresses in my spam filter just as a housekeeping task. Seeing your Cambodia IP address reminded me that there was some stalker from years ago who trolled this blog using the same dubious credentials. That’s you, I assume. So, bye-bye.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 9, 2020 @ 1:33 pm


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