One of life’s most brutal experiences is falling in love with the wrong person. It happens all the time, of course; there are few people whose romantic lives don’t include at least one or two failures, and all one can really hope is that the damage done doesn’t outweigh the lessons learned.
Like everything important, this doesn’t just apply to real life — it applies to watching television. The dominance of the male anti-hero as paternal figure (Tony Soprano, Walter White) has been sublimated by a rise in the bad boy crush object who really is, in the long run, pretty bad.
This is a problem which has plagued the series You technically since the beginning of its original premiere on Lifetime, but especially after it was adopted by Netflix. From the start, You has stood out for two reasons: One, having one of the least Google-able titles of all time, and two, its central” protagonist” Joe. Executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, in adapting the novel by Caroline Kepnes, played with classic romance tropes to show the dark side of the all-encompassing love which might seem appealing, until it happens to you.
Played by Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley, bookseller and ostensible romantic Joe has a habit of falling in love at first sight, and then becoming fixated on how he’s the only one who really sees these women. It’s the kind of attention that might sound nice to any girl who’s spent a tense day checking her text messages for any sort of response from her crush. Unfortunately, his fixation extends towards stalking, assault, and the occasional murder.
While Badgley is an attractive man, even he can’t make body disposal look hot — however, that hasn’t been enough to deter the legions of fans who have been looking forward to Season 2’s premiere this month to get a new fix of Joe. While Kepnes has admitted that when she first created the character, she didn’t think of him as a serial killer, Badgley has been vocal since even before the show premiered that Joe is not a Good Guy and that if you think otherwise, you need to pay more attention to all the murdering he does. But that hasn’t stopped the extreme level of crushing that Joe fans have admitted to on Twitter, much as Badgley might try to dissuade them.
It’s not new, of course, these crushes aroused by television bad boys — even this year, it’s not exclusive to You. Kendall Roy’s body count is a lot smaller than Joe’s (as far as we know) but with each beating his ego took in Season 2 of Succession, he became more vulnerable, more sympathetic… and, in a “I want to heal him with my love” sort of way, more attractive. How to know a character has reached Television Crush status: when there are YouTube fan videos devoted to him.
An early prototype for this sort of character was everyone’s favorite snarky British bleach blonde vampire; Buffy the Vampire Slayer first introduced Spike as one half of a Sid and Nancy-esque pairing, but by the end of Season 2 Spike was betraying his fellow vampires to help Buffy (ostensibly for his own purposes), and then his re-introduction in Season 4, and the “neutering” chip in his brain that kept him from killing others, led to him becoming an ally and, eventually, a vampire whose lack of a soul didn’t keep him from falling in love with the slayer.
Spike was arguably one of the most problematic TV boyfriends of all time even before that pesky business with the rape attempt, and the show’s attempt to redeem him in Season 7 by also giving him a soul was less than effective. It was as if the soul was meant to flip a switch, resetting Spike as a character you no longer had to feel guilty about crushing on.
Meanwhile, there’s poor little rich boy Logan Echolls of Veronica Mars, first introduced in Season 1 as a bully who mocked the titular teen girl detective’s absentee mother and smashed her car’s headlights. But by the end of the season, Veronica and Logan have succumbed to a mutual attraction, and their love story becomes one of the show’s dominant threads.
Logan stands out in this discussion because while his original presence in the first three seasons of Veronica Mars was always very conscious of his darker qualities, in the 2010s both the feature film and the Hulu continuation sought to give him some sort of redemption. In fact, one of the low points of Season 4 was how it tried to address this with Veronica getting frustrated at Logan becoming too good, leading to her provoking him into a round of rough sex that, ultimately, felt wildly out of character. Logan was now a good boyfriend to Veronica, after all, and the sequence was the show’s way of pointing out just how much things had changed for them.
Whether it be an obsessive serial killer or a bad business boy, TV makes it hard to escape this trope. But right now, what’s encouraging about this trope these days is that show creators are more conscious of the pitfalls of that trope, and make sure that their shows don’t lose sight of the realities of their characters. You constantly confronts us with the character’s actions, as well as his guilt about them. Succession never fails to showcase the depths of cruelty characters like Kendall are capable of.
Sometimes, the viewer might feel judged for wishing that Joe would peep in through her windows, or for wanting to give Kendall a big hug. But the complicated moralities aren’t brushed aside anymore. In some ways, these shows might be the ones introducing you to a problematic new love. But they’re also trying to be your friends, saying “um, maybe think about it.”
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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