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‘You,’ ‘UnREAL,’ and the problem of getting audiences to watch Lifetime shows

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When ‘You’ aired on Lifetime, no one watched it. Now it’s a hit on Netflix.

If there is a word for the exquisite pain of recommending a TV show to all your friends and then watch it become a hit on Netflix, the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary haven’t invented it yet. I bet there’s a term for it in German.

You, a twisty piece of rom-com deconstruction with a fully game performance from Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley, became a smash on Netflix over the holidays alongside the Sandra Bullock-led Bird Box. According to Netflix’s self-reported numbers, Bird Box was watched by 45 million households in its first week, despite being post-apocalypse porn nonsense. While You nearly matched Bird Box’s streaming numbers (at 40 million households), what made it into an instant viral sensation is that it was, well, actually good.

Adapted from the book series by Caroline Kepnes, You plops a serial killer into the standard romantic comedy formula: Boy meets girl; boy falls for girl; boy immediately begins stalking girl and murders anyone who gets in his way. In the universe of You, love means never having to say, “I killed all your friends.”

You became instantly branded as “that new Netflix show,” a fate not helped by the fact that the streaming giant billed the show as one of its Originals. That label is a crafty bit of false advertising. The dark comic thriller debuted on Lifetime in September, finding instant acclaim. The New York Times called it a “vicious thrill,” while the New Yorker described the show as a “delicious snack.” It made both publications’ year-end lists, no small feat.

I was what one might call the “second wave” of You viewers. I watched the pilot when it debuted in September, dug it, and then neglected to keep up with it. There are only so many shows you can watch at once. While listicle culture has been bemoaned as the death of journalism, best-of recaps are helpful in dusting off the year’s pop artifacts we forgot to remember.

Long story short, I watched the whole thing in two days on Lifetime’s website. It’s an addictive rush, the kind of show you almost instantly want to tell someone about.

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Being an evangelist for You right before the crash of the “third wave” was reminiscent of that scene in On the Basis of Sex where Ruth Bader Ginsburg (as played by the definitely-not-from-Brooklyn Felicity Jones) is arguing that gender-based discrimination should be illegal. Instead of listening to her case, the judges pelt her with questions like tomatoes heaved at a bad circus clown. Similarly, the conversation went something like: “Why would I watch Lifetime?” “Do I really need another show?” “Wait, what’s it called again?”

Many have attributed the change in You’s fortunes to the cultural capital Netflix occupies by virtue of its ubiquity. More than 137 million people subscribe to the platform, and that’s not even counting the number of people who scam on their friends’ accounts. If it were a country, Netflix would be the 11th most populous nation in the world, bigger than Mexico or Japan.

That size gives Netflix the power to make its programming into event television at a time when water cooler shows were thought to be on the extinction list. BBC’s Bodyguard, already a massive smash in the U.K., became an international sensation when the streamer picked it up. In addition to being viewed by 20 million households (again, per Netflix’s own numbers), it surprised at this year’s Golden Globes with a nomination for Best TV Drama. Meanwhile, Richard Madden took a trophy home for performance as David Budd, an Iraq War veteran with PTSD.

This trend has been termed the “Netflix bump,” in which shows picked up by the streaming service suddenly experience huge increases in visibility and viewership. But what makes the case of You different from, say, AMC’s beloved Breaking Bad, one of the earliest beneficiaries of the phenomenon, is its perceived audience. You was a show produced by and marketed to women. Most damningly, its previous home was a channel that made its name on exclusively catering to those viewers.

That unconscious bias didn’t just make you a difficult sell to the mass public; without Netflix effectively erasing its origins, You’s fans would have never known it existed.

Lifetime built its reputation on a certain kind of female-centric entertainment. After launching in 1984, the channel tried its hand at talk shows with names like Dr. Ruth and Regis Philbin before churning out a string of movies about women in peril. You’re likely aware of the genre from any number of parodies on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, but the most famous of these films is Mother May I Sleep With Danger?, which applies an afterschool sheen to the boyfriend-turned-stalker genre. At the center is a performance by 90210 alum Tori Spelling so inept it makes Tara Reid look like Sidney Poitier.

The low-rent quality of Lifetime’s typical offerings is part of the charm, however. Devoted connoisseurs look for those frayed edges: the stay boom mic or bit of flubbed dialogue the film editor opted not to cut. Once I tuned into Lifetime to see that the lead actress’ earring had fallen off during a scene; they just kept rolling.

But as much as trash for trash’s sake is Lifetime’s cottage industry, it has long attempted to strike a balance in its programming, buttressing its archetypical stranger danger bait with more thoughtful, nuanced offerings. Long before Army Wives and Drop Dead Diva, there was the interracial drama Any Day Now. Starring Lorraine Toussaint (Orange Is the New Black) and Annie Potts (Ghostbusters), it told the story of race relations in Birmingham, Alabama from the Civil Rights Era to the 1990s through the eyes of two best friends.

Any Day Now was hailed by VICE magazine as “revolutionary,” “innovative,” and “genius” in a 2017 retrospective on the show. But aside from pair of SAG nominations for Potts, the show was widely overlooked during its original run. It has largely been forgotten.

The issue of attracting viewers to its prestige fare has continued to plague Lifetime in the Peak TV era. Fourteen years after the cancellation of Any Day Now, UnREAL won a prestigious Peabody Award for its wryly satirical depiction of behind-the-scenes drama on the set of a Bachelor-like reality show; AFI dubbed it the best show of 2016. Its critical acclaim was viewed as a game changer for stars Shiri Appleby (Girls) and Constance Zimmer (House of Cards), talented TV mainstays who have sometimes struggled to find scripts worthy of their gifts.

UnREAL had everything a great show could want—that is, except an audience. Despite rave reviews, it was actively difficult to convince friends to give it a chance. A sendup of reality shows brought to you by Lifetime, taken solely at face value, might appear akin to the pot calling the kettle a man-stealing homewrecker and then flipping the table.

Accordingly, UnREAL averaged around a quarter million viewers per episode. That’s about 1/70th the number of people who tune into The Big Bang Theory every week.

But for my money, the most egregious example of the uphill battle Lifetime faces in convincing audiences that it makes good shows now is the would-be cult classic Mary Kills People. A Canadian import, Caroline Dhavernas (Hannibal) plays the titular Dr. Mary Harris, an ER doctor who is running a side hustle as an “end-of-life counselor.” In plain terms, she administers assisted suicides—like Jack Kevorkian in Louboutins. She’s also being investigated by a sexy FBI agent (Jay Ryan); as the laws of attractive people on TV dictate, they begin sleeping together.

Despite some forgivable plausibility issues, Mary Kills People has everything going for it. It’s got an intriguing premise and a great title at a time when Showtime expects me to say with a straight face that I watch something called SMILF.

But most importantly, it has a compulsively watchable performance at its pitch black center. Dhavernas’ work on the show has been likened to Barbara Stanwyck, which is just about the Holy Grail of being compared to other people. It’s not that she captures the femme fatale cool of old Hollywood; it’s that, like Stanwyck, she knows to play the material as a comedy. A Bryan Fuller veteran from her work in the “Joan of Arc on acid” sitcom Wonderfalls, Dhavernas has the ability to change the mood of a scene with a sly smirk or an unexpectedly deadpan line reading. A show as melancholy as this one shouldn’t be as funny as it is, yet its clashing tones make beautiful chaos.

Oddly enough, those qualities are many of the same things that make You so effective. If that show mashes up Gossip Girl and American Psycho, Mary Kills People is part-medical drama and part-neo noir, Grey’s Anatomy meets Detour. It’s the only program about a sexy female euthanasia doctor I’d feel comfortable recommending to my grandmother.

The difference between Mary Kills People and You, however, is one of distribution. Netflix picked up international streaming rights forYou early on. When Lifetime balked on a second season due to disappointing ratings (around one million an episode), Netflix picked up the tab instead. Untethered from the stigma of airing on a “women’s network,” the show flourished in syndication. The second season of You will likely debut on the steamer later this year, after Badgley finishes tweeting to everyone who developed a problematic crush on his character.

But Mary Kills People was already an acquisition. The show originally bowed on Canada’s Global TV, and Lifetime opted for the U.S. rights to broadcast the show, hoping it would resonate with the channel’s core demographics. Its ratings were nearly identical to UnREAL. Lifetime opted not to air the show’s third and final season.

There’s something unwittingly tragic about making female-targeted shows like You and Mary Kills People dependent on the generosity of streaming services in order to survive. Even that’s no guarantee they will be handled with care. When Lifetime dropped the final season of UnREAL following rapidly eroding viewership for a show that was never a ratings juggernaut, it was dumped onto Hulu with little fanfare. Its fourth season was very bad—symptomatic of all the show’s most lurid tics. But even for a show that often confused satirizing exploitation with exploitation itself, this was hardly death with dignity. It was like being taken out behind the barn and shot.

To an extent, female-led shows have always struggled to stick out in a TV landscape in which Walter Whites and Don Drapers took up too much space. Since The Sopranos ushered in the Golden Age of Television in 2000, just two shows with a woman at the center have won the Emmy for Best Drama: Homeland and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter of which was, indeed, a Hulu show.

These norms are shifting more and more as the internet revolutionizes the way we watch television. Gilmore Girls was ignored when it aired on the WB, which later became the CW. It was nominated for (and won) a single Emmy: for makeup. With The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel streaming on Amazon, its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has been making up for lost time. The comedy about a divorcee turned stand-up comic has earned an Emmy, two Golden Globes, Critics Choice Award, and a Producers Guild Award. The difference is clear: WB catered to the tastes of teen girls; Amazon does not.

Changing times may change the kinds of programs we watch and where we watch them, but that revolution is for naught if the ingrained gender biases in our consumption habits don’t change along with them.

Shows like You and Mary Kills People don’t come from nowhere. Storytelling which remembers the existence of the other 51 percent of the planet needs to be nurtured and incubated, especially when it’s produced in spaces created and run by women. If we don’t protect those spaces, they cannot survive. Lifetime plans to refocus its efforts on producing the very made-for-TV movies which led audiences to erroneously reject those shows in the first place. Funny enough, that plot point would have played great on a sharp satire of the entertainment industry like UnREAL. It’s too bad Lifetime won’t be making it.

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.