In 1945, the idea of television programs appearing in color seemed out of the question. Let alone a running series depicting the acts of a serial killer. Over the past twenty years, our obsession with evil has gone more than just mainstream. It has become commonplace.
From hit television series like Mindhunter and Conversations with a Killer: the Ted Bundy Tapes, to podcasts like Crime Junkie and Casefile True Crime, there is no medium that has not been graced by the obsessive crime phenomenon, especially stories about serial killers.
However, all of these stories are told in all of their bleak, gruesome glory and lack romanticism of any sorts. Besides Ted Bundy portraying a stud in the seventies, there are very few serial killers who possess the charisma that makes their crimes so story-like and alluring.
In September 2018, Netflix released its first season of YOU, an original series surrounding a young, handsome man and his search for devoted love. When Joe Goldberg, a quiet, dark-haired book clerk enters the main frame for the first time complete with a furrowed brow and eerie personal narrative, it is hard to think we are destined to hate this man. After all, he’s educated and employed in New York City.
Quaint, quick, and quirky. What’s not to love?
Of course, that’s before he ends up stalking and kidnapping his love interests.
That’s when the red flags start to pop up.
After the second season of YOU was released in December of 2019, it has since garnered the viewership of over 40 million households (Netflix defines household as an account that watches 70 percent of a single episode of the show).
Seeing as though the average cable television show has viewership just shy of one million, it is safe to say that the availability of streaming and hot psychopaths are a good duo.
But what makes YOU hit ratings out of the park? We’ve seen crime shows filter in and out of culture for decades, ranging all the way from Cops to twelve seasons of Law and Order: SVU. These kinds of stories aren’t new.
YOU is the perfect storm. It has a beloved teen heart throb who subscribes to nearly every John Hughes-esque romantic trope while also not becoming boring to the female character after a few interactions.
Penn Badgley, the lead actor, came from a hit mid-2000s teen drama, “Gossip Girl.” With this as his past, Badgley brought fanbase that already adored him to YOU.
With this viewership almost assumed, creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti used author Caroline Kepnes’ duology, YOU and Hidden Bodies as their basis for seasons one and two of the hit television show.
Joe Goldberg is the ideal boyfriend to most young people. He’s a reader who is attentive, caring, witty, intelligent, and nearly every other infectious quality of a person. He comes across as a hopeless romantic who spends his time brooding over Russian novels instead of flicking through hundreds of Instagram stories. Aside from the psychopathy, Joe Goldberg is for all intents and purposes, a seemingly perfect boyfriend.
This perfect storm is what has made YOU so popular. But its “X factor” is that perfection idea. Goldberg seems to check every box on the boyfriend material test which is what makes his character a sort of tragic hero type, the exact figure he wants to be. His tragic flaw is obviously his psychopathy, which is a main story arch in season two as Goldberg moves to L.A. in an attempt to start fresh with another lover.
His backstory slowly unfolds and is revealed to be far from a crazy puzzle that a psychologist or anyone with a minor idea about human behavior can figure out, but it attempts to humanize the inhumane. It makes viewers feel for Goldberg and pulls them closer to him. As he is striving to be the perfect idea of a man and a partner, he is quite literally killing people in the process. Attempting to attain the unattainable.
YOU, although presented as an overly-dramatic soap opera that nearly glamorizes murder, is actually a feat of story-telling. The creators take the ‘Ted Bundy complex’ of having an enticing young man be the worst evil of them all and twists the story into a mind-bending tale of a hopeless romantic gone rogue.
With season two’s booming success and a cliff-hanger that has haunted viewers for months now, there is no doubt that many more seasons of YOU are soon to come, complete with new love interests, a more complex deep dive into Goldberg’s past, and undoubtedly more gruesome murders. Until then, we are stuck in his glass box, eagerly waiting for the new bait.