Screen Test: Hit 'romance' You is unsettling; dystopian vampire drama The Passage is unsurprising
3 out of 5 stars
Tuesdays at 9pm on Fox (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505) and streaming on Fox+
2.5 out of 5 stars
Netflix holds its viewing data close to its chest – except when the numbers are especially brag-worthy, which is why it revealed in January 2019 that the series You was set to hit 40 million views on its streaming platform.
Setting aside the fact that it counts watching at least 70 per cent of one episode as a “view”, that seems like a colossal audience. And what makes this even more noteworthy is the show was a ratings flop when it first aired on a conventional television network in the United States in September 2018.
You is a boy-meets-girl story with a sick twist: the boy – bookstore manager Joe (Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley) – turns out to be a psychopath who stalks a customer he is smitten with, Beck (Elizabeth Vail), and manipulates her into a relationship with him.
Presumably, some of those 40 million viewers made it through only the first episode – but that opener is as well-crafted as any.
It is pulpy and trashy enough to make it easy to watch despite some eye-rolling plot developments, but with just enough satire – about social media and modern romance – to prod the binge viewers into some reflection.
Joe is an unreliable narrator, which lets the show stagger its revelations about just how unhealthy his fixation with Beck is.
It layers that with evidence of his better qualities – his charm, intelligence and kindness towards his neighbour’s son. Some of this is demonstrated with little finesse, but by the time viewers see how awful he really is, and just how bad for Beck, they will be thoroughly conflicted.
There will be extra discomfiture for those who found themselves rooting for the relationship at various points, as romantic fiction conditions viewers to do.
Rather than the obvious readings of the show as a cautionary tale for the #MeToo or social-media age, this is where You is most subversive.
Early episodes of The Passage, on the other hand, offer little that is unexpected.
To save the world from disease – including an impending bird flu pandemic – American scientists are secretly experimenting on death-row prisoners, injecting them with a virus that makes them disease-resistant, but also turns them into murderous vampires.
Believing a child subject could resist the virus’s downside, they send federal agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) to bring them an orphan girl – whom no one will miss – so they can experiment on her.
But he changes his mind when he meets little Amy (Saniyya Sidney) and decides to go on the run to protect her.
The first issue with this set-up is not so much apocalypse-, vampire- or virus-fatigue – audiences have seemingly endless appetites for all the above.
Rather, it is the all-too-familiar, unimaginative execution. The initial vampire scares are decent enough, but they wear thin quickly because it is nothing we have not seen before, either in the creepiness factor or the gore.
The notion of well-meaning scientists unleashing horrors on the world dates back to Frankenstein, but the fertile theme could have been probed far more thoughtfully and inventively than it is here.
Instead, the rationale is them trying to stop an unseen Asian epidemic and that other old chestnut, save a dying spouse.
The one bright spot in the three episodes previewed is Amy. Sidney portrays her with charm and sass, and her playful banter with Wolgast redeems Gosselaar’s bland performance somewhat.
But the series – based on an acclaimed trilogy of novels that span centuries – better have a few more tricks up its sleeve.
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