It is precisely because you’ve probably living under a rock for most of December and January that you’ve heard about and likely seen You, the Penn Badgley-starring series resuscitated from the grave of Lifetime by Netflix. Centered around a bookstore manager’s unhealthy obsession with a requisite basico named Guinevere Beck, (a blonde who reads?! What’s not to splooge and get obsessive over?), our anti-hero, Joe Goldberg, is only serving up one clear message: reading is, more than ever, for weirdos.
The man won’t even get a Kindle at the suggestion of his substitute girlfriend, Karen Minty (Natalie Paul), a convenient rebound as she’s often next door helping to take care of her friend and fellow nurse, Claudia (Victoria Cartagena), after weekly beatings from her boyfriend, Ron (Daniel Cosgrove). He is thoroughly well-read and committed to the selling and preservation of the printed word–not the words you can read on a screen. He is, in short, a freak. Which is why he reads books. Knows things. Has a book for every occasion and mood to recommend to Claudia’s impressionable son, Paco (Luca Padovan), from The Three Musketeers to Frankenstein. He is too smart for his own good–because that’s what happens when you’re too learned or well-read: you automatically become cuckoo to the point of homicidal rage. I mean, how could you not when you take one quick look around and instantly assess the level of stupidity around you? The slack-jawed mouths in every space, whether you’ve told yourself at least you’re in a “cultural hub” like New York or not. You can’t avoid them, not when you’ve transcended all others in your place as a self-sufficient autodidact. Well, self-sufficient minus the part where you still need the requited love of another. And that can be an especial challenge to find when you work in a bookstore, driven to the point of being within an inch of your psychosis, therefore narrating to yourself in the second person style (hence part of the reason for the title You) of Bright Lights, Big City–as though this is all just a letter that will reach Beck later on, when she’s tied up to that radiator in the sky.
Of course, You isn’t the first case of bad PR for people who read–neither in television or literature. There’s been the likes of Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), endlessly plucky and irksome with her appetitive bibliophile enthusiasm and, again, a case of the only way to make reading “cool” by being to portray a waifish character enjoying it. Or Holden Caulfield, yet another sociopath. What’s the pattern? If you’re a girl, in order to be painted as a “bookworm,” you have to be attractive to get away with it. And, as a man, you have to be a fucking psycho with obsessive tendencies. There’s just no in between, no other way for a person to be interested in reading if these are not the gender-biased tropes. You is no exception to the rule. And yet, one can’t blame show developers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble for continuing the tradition carried out by the book’s author, Caroline Kepnes, in making Joe as fucking creepy as possible as a result of growing up among the stacks, his “Mr. Miyagi,” as he himself phrases it, being the owner of the shop, Mr. Mooney (Mark Blum, unrecognizable at this point as Rosanna Arquette’s husband in Desperately Seeking Susan). The man who helped make him think it was okay to lock people in soundproof encasements and fill him with platitudes like, “Some people deserve to die” (though, to be fair, he’s not wrong).
The correlation between Joe’s snobbery regarding reading and his murderous desires is intended to be made immediately clear from the outset. From the second he sees Beck walking into the bookstore and remarks, “…you’re not the standard insecure nymph hunting for Faulkner you’ll never finish, never start; Faulkner will harden and calcify, if books could calcify, on your nightstand; Faulkner meant only to convince one-night stands that you mean it when you swear you never do this kind of thing. No, you’re not like those girls…”
His judgment, of course, is not merely reserved for Beck, but the rightly ashamed Dan Brown purchaser that leaves him with the commentary, “This guy is, what, thirty-six and he’s only now reading Franny and Zooey? And let’s get real. He’s not reading it. It’s just a front for the Dan Browns in the bottom of his basket.”
It is a lifetime of reading that has made Joe jaded and misanthropic, conditioned to believe in the “one essential truth” that “all books add up to,” as crystallized by another one of Mr. Mooney’s aphorisms: “If your IQ is above a certain number, life is pretty much unbearable. And the number is not even that high.”
You, thus, simply adds to the longtime anti-intellectual campaign afoot in this country (arguably since the invention of TV, but at least we had I Love Lucy at the beginning), one that aims to paint faux erudite twats as the annoying representation of what it means to read on a regular basis.