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Obsessed with an aspiring writer, a charming bookstore manager goes to extreme measures to insert himself into her life.

Perhaps with the intention of spooking competitors in traditional TV and cable, Netflix started 2019 by offering some viewer numbers. That is, projections on how many people in the United States and internationally actually watch at least a portion of a series on the streaming service.

It claimed the British drama/dark comedy Sex Education will be watched by 40 million viewers in its first four weeks and that the Spanish teen drama Elite has already been watched in more than 20 million homes around the world. By the way, Netflix also says its movie Bird Box will be seen by 80 million viewers.

The most mouth-watering revelation was that the series You, which already aired on the Lifetime cable channel and then migrated to Netflix, would probably have 40 million viewers in January alone. This provides context – on Lifetime in the United States, it had an audience of about 1.5 million. You is now a Netflix phenomenon, much discussed online, and we are obliged to figure out why.

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First, You is very, very good. It’s been called “bonkers” but you can take that in a good way. At first it appears to be a cautionary tale aimed at young women and telling them that terrible things can happen when you make your personal life public on social media. Then, however, it becomes a delicious satirical thriller that upends some common manoeuvres in romcom dramas and, for good measure, gets even more twisted. It’s huge not just because it can be binged on Netflix.

Bookstore owner Joe is played by Penn Badgley, left. Elizabeth Lail, right, plays aspiring writer Guinevere Beck.

It all starts with Joe (Penn Badgley from Gossip Girl), the manager of a Manhattan bookstore, taking a shine to customer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), based on her looks, clothes and purchase of a particular novel in his store. From the get-go he’s obsessed and, just from her name on her credit card, quickly finds out where she lives, who her friends are and that she’s got an on/off boyfriend, a rich dude who is a total cad. Joe stalks her in person and online and soon he can subtly insert himself into her life.

Before long, the cad of a boyfriend is trapped in the basement of the bookstore being questioned by Joe. Also, Guinevere’s phone is stolen and Joe gets his hands on a laptop belonging to her closest friend, who goes by the name Peach. In his long-winded voiceover narrative, Joe makes it clear that he will have Guinevere all to himself. That’s the plan.

But You isn’t a one-note thriller about a dangerous stalker. Guinevere (usually called “Beck” by her friends) isn’t a very interesting young woman, it turns out. In fact she’s rather boring and often seems an idiot, trying to use her looks and charm on her teachers in the fine-arts program she’s taking. She wants to be a poet but is startlingly superficial. Joe, meanwhile, takes a break from his stalking to help out a neighbour’s kid who has uncaring parents. The shifting dynamic is fascinating to watch. Who’s the heroine? Is Joe an anti-hero or a monster? It’s very entertaining.

In part, what’s unfolding is a nifty series of reversals. Joe is in fact correct to loathe the pretentious, vaguely literary world in which Guinevere exists on the fringe, as a budding writer. They are awful people and, yes, the object of his desire needs to be rescued from all that. It’s just that her rescuer is a murderous stalker who may already have stalked and killed a young woman he was obsessed with. It’s hard to tell on that point, but this ghostlike figure named Candace turns up when he’s concussed. Why is he concussed? Well, things go almost comically awry when Joe follows Guinevere and Peach to a country house. There, events unfold that are violent, sexy, comical and nerve-racking. Yes, all of that.

And yes, You is best watched when a few episodes can be binged. It flows, and it benefits from lacking commercial interruptions. But somebody at Netflix also spotted the show’s greatness – it’s so weirdly twisted and sometimes satirical that it is ideal for online chatter and commentary. Making sense of it is difficult and the reaction of others helps the viewer get a grip on it.

Although You (adapted by Greg Berlanti, whose work goes back to Dawson’s Creek, from a novel by Caroline Kepnes) had good reviews when it aired on Lifetime last fall, the channel didn’t really understand what it had on its hands. All it saw was a cautionary tale with good-looking leads. It did have some extra buzz because it’s about male entitlement in the #MeToo era. There’s that, but the series has a pulpy, demented quality that allows the viewer to question so much about the characters and their predicaments. It’s a great, unhinged thriller.

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