I really love You. The Netflix drama stars Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg, a book-loving serial killer with a very dry sense of humour. The three seasons follow Joe as he chases love interests in New York, LA and San Francisco.
Some wits have compared Joe to Ted of How I met your mother. There are similarities, both characters are endlessly looking for romantic love. Of course, Joe is everybody’s worst nightmare. He fixates on strangers, stalks them and kills their friends. There’s nothing heartwarming about that. But Joe is extremely likeable, all thanks to a fantastic script and stellar acting by Badgley.
A very clever script device encourages viewers to empathise with Joe. A voiceover of his thoughts narrates much of the action. This highlights his wry observations, his self-awareness and — believe it or not — his good intentions. It also doesn’t hurt that Penn Badgley has a very attractive voice! It’s deep and warm, like a cup of coffee.
Joe works well as a character because he has good qualities alongside the bad. He’s protective towards youngsters, stands up to bullies, recognises goodness, and wants to support his love interests. When he helps, it seems to be because he knows it’s the right thing to do. Joe very much wants to be a better person. Unfortunately, that goes out the window when self-preservation is at stake!
There’s more to You than the romantic troubles of an obsessive serial killer. This show is also a satire of certain strands of American life. Season one focuses on people who want to be writers. Two is about the LA wellness and spirituality scene. Three features mommy and marriage influencers, the marketing around female mid-life empowerment, and … whatever it’s called when men go into the forest to get in touch with their masculinity.
In this way, You is a show about the cultural ideas that many of us aspire to in order to become “better” people. Joe isn’t the only character trying to self-improve. Everyone is at it. Many of us imagine our lives will be better if we can get published, drink enough celery juice, or optimise some natural part of our lives such as motherhood or menopause.
I think Joe’s observations on modern aspirational culture are another reason why he is such a likeable character. With his genuine love of books, lack of experience with social media, and complete lack of pretension, he represents an old-fashioned authenticity. Where others seek self-improvement in superficial ways, for Joe being better is about being good. It’s such a pity he usually fails!