The Women Behind ‘You’ on Creating This Fall’s Darkest, and Most Timely, Romance

NEW YORK — Sera Gamble and Caroline Kepnes had just wrapped a long day on the set of their new Lifetime romantic thriller, “You,” and all they wanted to do was celebrate.

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Judy Berman
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Sera Gamble and Caroline Kepnes had just wrapped a long day on the set of their new Lifetime romantic thriller, “You,” and all they wanted to do was celebrate.

It was August 2017, sometime between midnight and last call. Gamble, a writer and producer who developed “You” with Greg Berlanti, and Kepnes, who wrote the novel it’s based on, were in New York City, where the show is both set and shot. Production had just begun on the series, which will premiere Sunday, and the women had decamped to a bar for a hard-earned drink and soon became engrossed in a conversation about their characters. Then, as Gamble recalled, “This quite drunk guy sits down next to us and just starts talking.” His topic of choice: Donald Trump.

“He wasn’t even friendly!” Kepnes said, laughing, at a Midtown Manhattan hotel just after Labor Day. She and Gamble, who don’t get to see each other as often as they would like, had reunited that afternoon to discuss their collaboration, often finishing each other’s sentences in the process.

Gamble recounted how startled she, an accomplished kickboxer, had been by her and Kepnes’ timidity when faced with the stranger at the bar. “We’re really sweet to him, and we say, ‘You know, we don’t get to see each other every day, and we’re just having a little conversation about work right now,'” she said. “And he didn’t get the hint at all.”

In fact, they had been talking about toxic masculinity — one of the series’ most salient themes — when the man interrupted them. As the intrusion endured, the women locked eyes.

“The unspoken communication was: ‘This is why we’re making this television show,'” Gamble said.

“You” is at once a satire of heterosexual dating in the social-media era, a psychological thriller told largely from the perspective of a stalker and a love story in the Nora Ephron tradition. It begins with a meet-cute: Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), an aspiring writer in her early 20s, walks into a bookstore managed by Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, best known for a bookish “Gossip Girl” character who was also arguably a stalker). A charming literature lover several years her senior, he immediately falls for Guinevere, who goes by “Beck.” Undaunted by her caddish paramour, Benji (Lou Taylor Pucci), and her possessive best friend, Peach (Shay Mitchell from “Pretty Little Liars,” playing deliciously against type as an acerbic queen bee), Joe resolves to win Beck’s heart.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, well, that’s the point. “Our goal was, when you come in on that first scene, you really do feel like you’re in a scene that, eight or 10 years ago, would have been a young Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson,” Gamble said. “They are both bright and thoughtful and intelligent, and have been hurt before, but they’re open to possibilities.”

The illusion of normality doesn’t last long. Though he claims to hate technology, Joe’s first move is to scour the internet for information about Beck. Hypocrisy aside, his research isn’t necessarily a red flag; in 2018, who hasn’t joked about “cyberstalking” a crush? But Joe’s pursuit soon turns overtly creepy. He tracks down Beck’s address and peeps in her windows — conveniently, she leaves her curtains open. (“It’s like you’ve never seen a horror movie,” Joe muses, part of his running inner monologue addressed to her. “Or the news.”) He follows her — and not just on Twitter.

Like any great rom-com dreamboat, Joe wants nothing more than to treat Beck like a queen. He also feels so entitled to her love and so sure he knows what is best for her, that he can justify committing violent crimes to achieve that happily-ever-after ending.

Joe is clearly unhinged. But, “You” implies, in a culture shaped by stories where obsession and manipulation are framed as the height of romance, the line between cute and terrifying is thin. As Joe repeatedly crosses that line, the show uses the voice-over to let viewers in on his thoughts.

“I’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know guys like me are always getting into jams like this,” he notes in one of Kepnes’ favorite scenes, when Beck comes home as he’s snooping in her apartment.

“Where he’s coming from is not so alien or different from where a lot of people are coming from,” Gamble said. “Because he was raised on the same great literature and great movies and great romances that we all were.” “There are so many parallels with ‘You’ve Got Mail,'” Kepnes said, referring to Ephron’s 1998 film about a bookstore proprietor (Meg Ryan) who meets a man (Tom Hanks) on AOL — she later discovers he owns a chain that could put her out of business. “It’s one of my favorite romantic comedies that I have watched a million times. When I was younger, and very hopeful and in good spirits, it seemed just absolutely, utterly sweet. And then — “

“He destroys her life,” Gamble deadpanned.

Viewers who hope Joe and Beck will get together despite his stalking are precisely the audience “You” is designed to reach. “The story only works if it’s also a real romantic comedy that you can root for,” Gamble said. Although she warned her own daughter against confusing fantasies like the teen-vampire phenomenon “Twilight” with real-life love, the experience of making the show reminded Gamble of how susceptible she still was to disturbing romantic conventions. In many respects, early episodes of “You” are faithful to the novel. The biggest difference is that while the book sticks exclusively to Joe’s perspective — a twisted, sardonic subjectivity that, like the sociopathic protagonist of “Gone Girl,” nonetheless voices some sharp cultural critiques — the series expands its scope to include Beck’s private thoughts and experiences.

“It was important to us, as the season went on, to get more and more into Beck’s point of view, so that you can factually compare and contrast the times that [Joe] is correct about why she’s doing what she’s doing, and then the times when he’s way off the mark,” Gamble explained.

Kepnes, who has written for the series “7th Heaven” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” wrote a late-season episode. She and Gamble both drew from their personal histories as young, female aspiring writers to flesh out Beck, and they agreed that “You” is really her story.

It’s a story that is bound to resonate, almost a year into the #MeToo movement. Along with the stalker who believes he’s a nice guy — and who identifies as a “Bachelor"-hating feminist — and the sometime boyfriend who really only comes around for drunken sex, Beck must contend with the advances of a grad-school professor (Reg Rogers) who could make or break her career.

The professor character didn’t appear in the book, which was published in 2014. But Gamble and Berlanti wrote him into their pilot even before reports about multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked more accusations against more men and a broader reckoning with the ways some men leverage their power. “Sera is psychic, so she saw it all coming,” Kepnes joked.

“I’ve been to college,” Gamble wryly noted. “I’ve had professors.”

As she sees it, “You” is “a story about some of the same things that the Me Too movement is about.”

“But as women,” she continued, referring to herself and Kepnes, “we know that the Me Too movement did not invent the problem; it’s just the current iteration of a conversation trying to address a problem that’s been going on since long before we were born.”

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