Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti developed “You,” the one-hour dramatic adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ novel, well before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were dominating news cycles. But the series — which centers on Joe (Penn Badgley) whose obsession with a young woman named Beck (Elizabeth Lail) turns into a tale of stalking — feels of this time in a way even Gamble could not have predicted.
“Everyone knew this was edgy, dark, adult material — that the lead of the show would do some pretty crazy things,” Gamble tells Variety. “It’s just been interesting to watch this become such a public conversation.”
In the pilot, Beck is dealing with a professor who’s “kind of inappropriate with her,” says Gamble. Since she is his teachers’ assistant, he is able to control a lot about her life — including her student housing situation and her livelihood. It’s a situation Gamble says not that’s unlike many of the stories being told of late where women felt stuck due to men’s abuse of power.
“It feels particularly timely, like people are going to think we wrote it in because of all of the things in the news,” says Gamble. “But I wrote that scene three years ago with Greg Berlanti, and I went to college a lot longer ago than that. It was true when I was in college, it was true when my mother was in college, and now hopefully it won’t be true when my goddaughter is in college.”
“You” follows the book pretty closely, which includes getting inside Joe’s mind through voiceover that reveals contradictions to what he’s actually telling people around him.
“One of the things I think about a lot is just how people interact with one another. All of us have a face that we are showing each other, and sometimes that is more conscious than others, but it fascinates me how you can be really wrong about someone,” Gamble says. “There’s something intensely charming and evocative and seductive about being so deeply inside someone’s most honest thoughts. Even when they’re raw and even when they’re dark, not all of them are impossible to relate to.”
That means viewers will be listening in when Beck is first introduced through Joe’s gaze.
“You see this very attractive, hard to read young woman come into the bookstore, and he’s doing the full Sherlock Holmes on her, saying ‘I think you’re wearing bracelets because you like a little bit of attention’ and ‘I think you’re wearing your shirt a little bit loose because you don’t want that much attention’ and ‘I’m so interested in the books you’re reading, and this is why I think this is the book you want,’” says Gamble. “Part of us is already thinking, ‘How do you know, Joe?’ And then I think another part of us is thinking, ‘Oh I’ve done that before.’”
Although being inside Joe’s mind lets the audience in on his point of view, Gamble reveals that they do break that POV early in the first season because the producers felt they would have been doing a disservice to Beck to “if we didn’t let her take the wheel,” she says.
As the story goes on, Joe’s behavior escalates from merely watching Beck from across the store to stalking her on social media and then physically. Although Gamble admits that those behaviors might make people “completely freak out and be repulsed,” she believes by the end of the season, the audience will understand where he’s coming from and why he behaves the way he does. And she isn’t concerned that the current climate will make characters like Joe too unpalatable for the audience. After all, she notes, Joe is not doing bad things because he enjoys them.
“One thing we were very, very clear on is that Joe Goldberg is not Dexter. He is the opposite of that cold-blooded, psychopathic killer. He’s a romantic, he’s thoughtful, he’s even a little bit shy, and he’s genuinely really sensitive and emotional,” Gamble says. “He has a relationship in the show with a young boy about 12 years old who lives in his apartment building, and you see a lot about how Joe came to be the way he is through the way he’s helping this boy out. It’s very clear that he’s not somebody who likes the taste of blood. He’s always in way over his head, but the need to love and be loved and the need to see and be seen is so strong inside of him.”
That said, Gamble admits that “You” is ultimately a “twisted love story.”
“Love is the thing that makes us do the craziest s— of anything in our lives,” she says. “Pretty much the first thing we all did when we got in the writers’ room was tell stories about moments in our lives when love felt like it was turning us into someone we barely recognize. And almost anyone you speak to will have one of those stories, and all of my favorite movies are those stories — they’re just those stories with a beautiful indie rock soundtrack and she kisses back at the end and everything is fine, but if you put a horror movie soundtrack underneath that, you’re like, ‘Why is he outside with a boombox? She said no. He’s outside her window!’ There’s such a huge difference between conducting yourself appropriately in real life, obtaining consent every step of the way, and the sweeping love stories we grew up admiring and desiring for ourselves.”