How Penn Badgley’s ‘You’ Stalker Became a ‘Twisted’ Version of His ‘Gossip Girl’ Character

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Lifetime’s “You” is a twisted stalker thriller that takes its cues from romantic heroes of the past and will have viewers questioning the behavior of every nice guy they’ve ever encountered.

In the drama from co-creators Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, Penn Badgley takes the nice-guy character that he embodied so effectively on “Gossip Girl” to its most warped extremes. The man trying to win the affections of a woman becomes an obsessive, manipulative, menacing nightmare. But to the outside world, he’s the same lonely boy just trying to get the girl.

“Yesterday we were at an interview and [Badgley] called this character the meta-progression of Dan Humphrey, which is hilarious,” Gamble said in an interview with TheWrap. “[Both characters are] people who are slightly outsider, observing even more intensely than other people realize. In that sense there’s certainly a through-line.”

Lifetime

But beyond Badgley’s involvement, the two shows could not be more different. While the teen drama “Gossip Girl” fully bought into the ideas of romance and male heroism, “You,” based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes, dissects them, revealing their most toxic and harmful outcomes.

The story at the center of “You” is told from the perspective of Penn Badgley’s character, Joe Goldberg, a charming, seemingly harmless book store clerk who instantly develops an obsession with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a young writer who just wanted to buy a book. His behavior quickly escalates from creepy to dangerous as he tries to manipulate her into a relationship.

“There’s something so addictive and sticky and conflicting about being inside Joe Goldberg’s head, in the book,” said Gamble. Like the source novel, “You” is told primarily from Joe’s point of view, heavily employing voiceover narration to delve into Joe’s psyche.

And as viewers hear more and more of the character’s innermost thoughts, Dan Humphrey won’t be the only one called to mind.

“Joe has a twisted mind, but he’s not operating with alien concepts. He watched the same shows that you did, he read the same books,” said Gamble. “He internalized what it means to be a ‘good man’ and a romantic hero, and he’s willing to swing a hammer at someone’s head to protect the woman he loves.”

In the era of #MeToo, when the longstanding dynamics between men and women are being closely examined and called into question, “You” feels “eerily timely,” as Gamble puts it.

But Kepnes’ novel was published long before men like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. were publicly disgraced, and Gamble’s show was already in production by the time the movement began in earnest.

“This is not a new conversation in the world,” she said. “This treatment of women in the world, and the problematic stuff between the genders that’s at the forefront of the #MeToo movement, that’s been going on since long before any of us were born. I just wanted to be a part of a show that tackles it in an interesting way.”

Expect those ideas to be mined even further in the show’s second season, which was picked up by Lifetime months ahead of Sunday’s series premiere. Based on the second book in the series by Kepnes (“I think she’s got a third on the way too, but I don’t want to pressure her too much”), the show will move to Hollywood for its next outing.

“I want to get to see inside characters, so I can try to understand where they’re coming from, why things happen the way they do,” Gamble said.

“These cultural ideas are toxic for all of us. They’re hurting all of us. It’s not like men are just hanging out and everything is perfect for them. This is hurtful all the way around.”

Lifetime

“You” premieres on Lifetime Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10/9c.

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