As teen philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." In 2019, that sentiment still holds true, but "life" is "content" and "pretty fast" is "LOL SKULL HOW MANY SHOWS DID NETFLIX RELEASE THIS WEEK?" So it's OK if you don't remember way back in January when YOU became the biggest show on television for a few weeks and everyone online seemed to agree that Penn Badgley had leveled up. Heat around the former Gossip Girl star reached such outrageous proportions, in fact, that Badgley himself had to politely remind fans his character, Joe Goldberg, was a murderous sociopath and not #relationshipgoals.
Based on the book by Caroline Kepnes and created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, YOU had an auspicious start on its way to becoming one of the year's most buzzy shows. It debuted in relative silence on Lifetime in September of last year before exploding into the homes and phones of Netflix subscribers in December. (Season 2 of YOU will debut directly on Netflix and avoid linear television altogether.) The premise is delightfully twisted, subverting romantic comedy beats that young audiences have been raised on for decades. On YOU, nice guys don't finish last, they literally get away with murder.
"Part of the fun of the book, and now the show, is that you may be surprised by some moments where you find yourself rooting for a character you know is doing bad things," Gamble told TV Guide at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in 2018. "This, to me, is part of the brilliance of Caroline's book; is that she was very explicit about the things that Joe was doing. And yet, there were times that I found myself really rooting for the couple. I was sort of horrified at myself and then it caused me to really think about the kind of movies I grew up loving, the kind of love songs I grew up singing — the message that we give our boys and our girls is that certain things are romantic, that in actual life are illegal, and stalking, and not romantic."
At the center of this parlor trick is Badgley. Equal parts incel and white knight, Joe is basically a Twitter reply guy in human form. Not that Joe realizes it: YOU is told from his perspective and Joe's unreliable narration paints the lonely bookstore clerk as the hero of the story. It's dark, repellent stuff — and while the satire of his grotesque male entitlement is embedded in the writing, it's easy to imagine the performance getting away from a star unwilling to come off as so evil and pathetic. But that's not Badgley, who dives into the material head first and comes out with a performance that recalls Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle. It's an incredible turn to watch, especially for fans of Gossip Girl, which — and I say this as a fan — was not necessarily known for its complex performances. It's also fully worthy of an Emmy nomination.
To judge only on recent Emmy winners for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, the Television Academy loves itself some difficult men. Because for every Randall Pierson or Coach Taylor, upstanding and ultimately positive examples of masculinity, there are four Walter Whites, three Tony Sopranos, and one each of Nicholas Brody, Don Draper, and Vic Mackey. Michael C. Hall, who played Dexter, the last prominent serial killer who pretended to be someone better, was nominated four times. There's precedent here for Badgley to actually receive a nomination — provided the Television Academy can get past its likely bias against the actor and his previous xoxo television work. When it comes to the best acting performances of the past year, Badgley's not a maybe. He's The One.
YOU is streaming on Netflix. Emmy nominations will be announced Tuesday, July 16. The 71st Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on Fox.