Lifetime, that saucy minx of a cable network, is never better than when it takes a step away from its unending supply of killer-thriller-cheating-spouse movies for an actual dramatic series with longer story arcs and sharper moves — such as “UnReal” and “Mary Kills People.”
Now there’s “You,” an enjoyably unnerving 10-episode tale of meet-cute millennials whose flirty beginnings immediately devolve into one of those sicko-stalker stories we all know and love. There’s truly nothing new to report here as far as premises go, but “You” (premiering Sunday) unfolds with the sort of momentum, chemistry and solid structure that other new TV shows would do well to study.
Based on Caroline Kepnes’s novel and co-produced by Greg Berlanti (“Riverdale,” “Arrow”), “You” stars Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl”) as Joe Goldberg, a mild-mannered, seemingly Internet-averse manager of a used/rare bookshop in Manhattan. When lovely MFA student Guinevere Beck (“Once Upon a Time’s” Elizabeth Lail) wanders in to browse the shelves, Joe is utterly charming on the outside. On the inside, the viewer is treated to his darker narration, an ongoing monologue addressed to Guinevere (or Beck, as she likes to be called). He sizes Beck up, judges her tastes in literature and decides she’s a worthy target for his twisted sense of rescue.
With the fuel efficiency that Lifetime viewers expect, Joe wastes little time invading Beck’s privacy — her social-network settings are as wide open as the curtainless windows of her first-floor apartment. Before long he’s secretly following her on nights out with her snooty friends, and he comes into possession of her phone, which grants him vital access to her texts, emails and life history.
At the same time, Joe pursues a slow but steady courtship with Beck in the rom-com mold, removing any obstacle that gets in his way, including her jerky ex-boyfriend, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), who still comes around demanding a quickie. It’s Benji’s bad luck that Joe has the only key to the bookstore’s basement, where rare tomes are allegedly restored and preserved, but which also works nicely as a soundproof torture cell.
“You” is one of the rare cases where voice-over narration — Joe’s — works with chilling success, as we settle into the twisted, “Dexter”-like mind of a man whose only way of expressing love is through extreme control. He can be a sloppy psycho, always a step away from getting caught, and his coolness masks a raging insecurity. (This can happen when you take Lifetime fodder and give it room to stretch, taking time to hint at the bizarre abuse Joe suffered as a kid.)
As the relationship progresses, Joe suffers the exquisitely deserved torture of watching the scroll of texts on Beck’s old phone as she uses her new phone to text her friends to share intimate details about him, followed by their snarky replies; it only strengthens his resolve to eliminate any and all competition for her attention. (Badgely is particularly good at bringing forth the ugly nature that lurks beneath Joe’s charm, delivering a subtle sense of hideousness wrapped in a pretty package.)
While “You” may come across as a big, fat cautionary tale to anyone who doesn’t have their online life locked down and secure, it also offers a covert and compelling study of modern dating. Take away the dead bodies and duct tape and notice how, despite the violent outcomes of Joe’s obsessions, this story is about two rather selfish people putting their own needs first.
At the risk of some potential backlash, “You” carefully restricts Beck’s innocent-lamb act to the first episode or two; it’s no accident that a viewer will sympathize with her less and less in the first few episodes, even as Joe worms his way in and a professor sexually harasses her. Bit by bit, we see Beck also has a capacity for manipulation, self-interest and Internet-assisted deceit — nowhere near deserving of the torment that surely lies ahead, but also not as sweet as she seems.
By the fifth episode, the voice-over narration makes a surprise (but welcome) switch to her inner thoughts, which is Lail’s cue to shed a few more layers of Beck’s burdensome naivete. This is less about blaming the victim than empowering a female character in a new way, and it’s one of the things that keeps “You” on edge.
You (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.