[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of YOU.]
The breakout hit of 2019 premiered in relative quiet on Sept. 9, 2018. Less than a million people watched Joe Goldberg's (Penn Badgley) meet-cute with Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) during the premiere episode of YOU on Lifetime and the weekly ratings only dropped from there. A little more than 500,000 people watched Joe kill Beck (boo!) during the Season 1 finale two months later.
But as anyone who opened Twitter over the last 14 days can attest, the broadcast ratings for YOU belie what has become a significant cultural smash since that fateful finale. Netflix always had a stake in YOU, picking up first-run international streaming rights for the series before it ever even aired. But after adding the show's debut season to its platform on Dec. 26, the stalker-murder series has taken on a life of its own. Created by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble and based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes, YOU is the perfect show for this current time period, spawning think pieces and fan theories with equal aplomb. Its stars have become stars, none bigger than Badgley — erstwhile Gossip Girl Lonely Boy, Dan Humphrey — who takes Joe and turns him into an enticing blend of Oliver Trask from The O.C., Norman Bates, Tom Ripley and Mindy Lahiri. His is perhaps the least-heralded great performance of the last six months. (Thirst for Joe has gotten so bad, Badgley has been forced to go on Twitter to remind fans that they shouldn't want his handsome neighborhood murderer to literally slay them.) While Lifetime initially picked up YOU for a Season 2, the show will move to Netflix full-time for its next batch of episodes.
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All this buzz would make it very easy to count YOU as yet another win for the unbeatable Netflix, which took a network television show off the proverbial scrap heap and turned it into the Next Big Thing by virtue of its platform. But doing so would discount the very reason YOU is such an unbridled success in the first place: it was born, as so many popular shows on Netflix are, as a linear television show.
Netflix famously doesn't release viewership data, but as noted by Recode last December, nine of the 10 most-watched shows on Netflix are legacy network series, including The Office, Friends, Grey's Anatomy and Supernatural. The 10th show, incidentally, is Arrested Development, a cult network favorite that Netflix resurrected years later to lengthier episodes and diminished returns. Let's hope the same fate doesn't befall YOU now that it's a "Netflix Original."Photo: Netflix
To explain why that's a risk: YOU builds each of its 10 episodes like ... well, pretty much any other drama that has aired over the last 25 years, including many of the shows so popular on Netflix right now. Outside of the slightly extended finale, every episode clocked in around 43 minutes. Each starts with a cold open that leads into the credits. There are multiple acts, each with their own arcs that build to a small twist. The final act ends with a shocking cliffhanger that drives into the following episode. It's a serialized show, designed for a culture of "tune in next week!" but with episodes that can stand alone as miniature bodies of work — a beginning, middle and end. That's what makes it so easy to binge. But it's also what sets it apart from actual Netflix Originals and other streaming shows (cough, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). Too often, shows created for streaming platforms seemingly eschew the five-act structure of traditional series, instead opting to create something akin to miniature movies. (It's auteur theory as television to the point that it's not even television.)
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There's a place for that, to be sure — many of the Netflix Originals are great fun, and series like Mrs. Maisel and Handmaid's Tale win actual awards — but a show like YOU was produced with commercial television in mind. No wonder the former Lifetime series caught fire like few Netflix Originals in recent memory: while the content might not make it as classic as Grey's Anatomy, the two shows share DNA at the core. Which is why futzing with the alchemy now that YOU is a Netflix Original would be a mistake akin to Beck failing to kill Joe when she had the chance. (Damn you, Beck!) No one needs 55-minute episodes of YOU — least of all, Joe's next victim.
YOU is currently streaming on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)
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