I groaned when I saw it in the Netflix queue: generic title? Check. Obvious social media commentary? Check. Impossibly good looking, likely otherwise broadly drawn characters? Check. I remember what convinced to me check it out, as the trendy trailer attached with the latest slowed down moody version of a hit song did it few favours. Previously, my brother mentioned the show to me in a phone call. It wasn’t a recommendation, he just remarked that he had seen it. Okay, it’s at least watchable I thought. Later on, I was listening to the reasonably respected CBC Radio One preparing for work in the morning, when an older female guest remarked while she was watching it, though the main character is a horribly obsessive creep who shouldn’t be celebrated in any way, she found herself empathizing with him. Here was a show in the #MeToo era where we are at times asked to relate to the male creep? Hmm… perhaps it actually has something to say. Number one on Netflix’s trending list? Ugh.
Created by Greg Berlanti, who started off as a writer and producer on Dawson’s Creek, and has since built Warner Bros. television division (a banner under which this show is produced, so you know which studio it goes to if it hits the big screen) with shows like Everwood , the entire Arrowverse (TV’s DC-Universe), the underrated-cancelled Deception, Riverdale (which was almost good for one season), and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (also surprisingly very good, maybe it’s time to stop being surprised) teams with Sera Gamble (writer on Supernatural, creator of The Magicians) to adapt the novel by Caroline Kepnes.
The first season ran on the TV channel Lifetime last September and was renewed for a second season even before the first season premiered. However due to Lifetime’s committed focus to expanding its original film programming, Netflix who already had international distribution rights snapped it up. It’s a similar situation to the TNT series The Alienist, hence the Netflix original branding despite being hosted by a previous network. The show premiered on Netflix on Boxing Day and also similar to other shows in the binge-era, has taken about a month for everyone on social media to get on board with it as the new show everyone has been telling you to watch (Not unlike The Haunting of Hill House which might be the best thing Netflix has ever done).
I was taken with the direction of first episode as I noticed one thing the show carries that those melodramas do not usually have, but will likely be all the rage now: the use of shallow focus. Somebody in conceiving this show actually bothered to measure focal length. It’s as if they saw this Nerdwriter video on The Handmaid’s Tale (also currently watching) and said let’s do that. This bit of style works by drawing us closer into the character’s world, giving the show a tighter narrative focus while also speaking to the show’s themes of social isolation. This is a show, not just drawn by people who know how to make popular TV but also have some intelligence to spare.
The next solid bit of foundation is laid by the casting of Penn Badgley as central protagonist Joe Goldberg who I only previously knew from playing Emma Stone’s love interest in Easy A (available on Netflix), and the audience surrogate in Margin Call. My sister who also watched the show, knew him as Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl and as the lead character in The Stepfather (both available on Netflix). He’s charismatic, and his character is basically just re-skinned version of Dexter for the social media age. Unlike Dexter however, despite his dark background and upbringing he manages to be perfectly socially well-adjusted.
There are a lot of concessions the writers manage to make; how Joe can seemingly follow anyone around and get within 10 metres of them and not ever be noticed unless he wants to be. The fact that his love interest Guinevere Beck walks around naked and has sex in her first floor New York apartment with her blinds open all the time and Joe just stands alone across the street without being noticed. Other high-profile things like stealing books for no reason and then putting them back are inconsistent with his character who varies between meticulous; like updating social media feeds to avoid attention, and carelessness; like not disposing of major evidence at a crime scene. These things don’t add a lot to his character and seem to only be there to push the narrative forward.
The surrounding cast is capable. The one who makes the biggest impact apart from Joe is the show’s biggest star Shay Mitchell (Pretty Little Liars) who plays Peach Salinger (yes, supposedly distantly related to that Salinger). For one thing that’s a hell of a name for a character. She is the closest thing Beck has to a best friend, is naturally suspicious of Joe from the beginning. Her and Joe’s dynamic is a less friendly version of Dexter Morgan and James (Surprise MuthaF****er) Doakes. The writers make her a bit more unlikable, a bit more suspicious, and a bit more oblivious than she needs to be, but she is one of the most consistent characters on the show. Elizabeth Lail (Anna from Frozen on Once Upon A Time) seems well cast as someone who manages to be both attractive enough for TV but bland enough for every girl to relate to at the same time. She fits the profile of someone who is smart enough to navigate their lives socially, but dumb enough willfully ignore the warning signs for the sake of good drama. Basically a Communications student. This true to its genre form depends on what the plot requires of her, a page of Anastasia Steele drawn from 50 Shades of Grey. The show makes the interesting choice of giving her a narrative voice halfway through the show only to remove it, lest it take too much narrative control away from Joe. Similar to Dexter or House of Cards to its detriment. I really am surprised how male focused a show with such a heavy female audience is but it was likely successfully devised as an ingredient to its mass appeal.
You opts for quantity over quality fitting two seasons of material into a single 10 episodes. *MINOR CASTING SPOILER ALERT: A late-in-the-game-appearance by Special Guest Star John Stamos (a.k.a. Uncle Jesse from Full(ER) House, a.k.a. Dr. Tony Gates, a.k.a. Jake In Progress) comes hilariously and completely out of nowhere. Who is this guy? Prompting several thinkpieces and tweets galore. Remarked my father upon watching parts of it with me: “Y’know John Stamos has always had a certain amount of style. I mean look-” [almost as if it were cued Dr. Nicky as he’s hilariously called, immediately upon diagnosing a patient lights up a joint in-doors as the camera lingers on his perfectly tailored suit.] The show barely has any time for the interior lives of more than four characters but it makes time for a brand new character in episode eight of ten, as long as that character is John Stamos. <*MINOR CASTING SPOILER ALERT FINISHED.
That’s the great thing about this show: despite its dark subject matter it still remains fun to watch. The violence when it happens for and against women is restrained, consequential, and deserved. There are a few wacky twists the story takes and some storytelling risks that surprise the audience and that’s good writing 101. This is the best show I’ve watched since The Haunting of Hill House and with a better ending too (though that’s not hard to top). I believe it currently is THE show of the moment and Penn Badgley’s remarks about how talking with the various female writers, creator and his wife are what convinced him to do the show make that moment apt and deserving.