January 22, 2019

Obsessive Love Turns Deadly in ‘You’

Stalking takes on a whole other dimension in “You,” a Lifetime series about romantic obsession in the internet age. Based on the best-selling novel by Caroline Kepnes, it stars Penn Badgley from “Gossip Girl” as Joe Goldberg, who seems like a nice Jewish boy but is actually a dangerous psychopath. A bright, charming bookstore manager in New York, Goldberg meets his dream girl, Beck (Elizabeth Lail), stalks her via social media, insinuates himself into her life and proceeds to eliminate anything — and anyone­­ — who stands in his way.

“This is like a romantic comedy as a horror movie,” said Sera Gamble, who co-created and executive produces the series with Greg Berlanti. “It says that privacy has pretty much gone out the window and that can be a pretty scary thing,”

Adapting Kepnes’ novel proved challenging for Gamble, who wrote several episodes including the pilot and worked on all 10. “The book is incredibly intimate in that you’re inside [Joe’s] interior monologue the whole time,” she said. “I love reading novels that are a deep dive into a character that way, and it was important to us to keep that voiceover and let you hear the voice inside his head but also to expand the world of the show.”

That expansion included adding characters and a storyline that is not in the novel. In the first episode, viewers meet Paco, a young boy in Joe’s apartment building. “You wonder how a guy like Joe became a guy like Joe,” Gamble said. “Seeing the soft spot he has for this kid and the way he talks about the
world to Paco is a great way to illuminate what he believes.”

Initially, the viewer sees Beck through Joe’s point of view, but after a couple of episodes the shows shifts more and more to Beck’s point of view. “It was really important to start by seeing her as Joe sees her, but as time goes on, we start to see her as she is, so we can compare and contrast some of the conclusions that he’s drawn,” Gamble said. “They’re not always correct.”

A former actress, Gamble discovered her talent for writing when she began developing her own material to perform. She wrote a blog with her friend Simon Glickman called “Very Hot Jews,” collaborated with writer Raelle Tucker on screenplays, and was a finalist in the competition series “Project Greenlight” in 2003. Her screenplay was not produced, “but it was a conversation starter,” that got her representation and led to other work. She spent seven years as a writer on the TV show “Supernatural,” followed by stints on “Aquarius” and “The Magicians.”

The daughter of doctors — immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Poland — Gamble grew up in a home that was “very education-focused, surrounded by books.” She attended a Jewish day school, learned Hebrew and had a bat mitzvah. “It was important to [my parents] that I have an education and an understanding of my heritage,” she said.

“I feel a really strong cultural Jewish identity,” she continued. “At a moment where we’re being reminded that history repeats itself, I think it’s important to understand where you came from and be affected by the world around you. Having a cultural Jewish identity helps me empathize with people from other cultures.”

Gamble is engaged to a “lapsed Catholic” who is a voiceover director. “He’s very respectful, curious, interested and understanding about Judaism,” she said.

“You” has been picked up for a second season, which will be set in Los Angeles. “Over time, we move from city to city and find different lenses through which to explore love and obsession,” Gamble said. Unsurprisingly, not all the cast members will make the trip west. “Without spoiling too much,” she said, “I can tell you that not every character you’ve seen is alive by the end of the season.”

“You” premieres at 10 p.m. Sept. 9 on  Lifetime.

Getting ‘UnREAL’ with Shiri Appleby: Actress dishes on playing a Jewish, feminist antihero

In the world of television, Rachel Goldberg is a rare character: a Jewish, female antihero.

She’s the main character in “UnREAL,” a scripted drama on Lifetime about the behind-the-scenes world of a “The Bachelor”-type reality show called “Everlasting.”

Rachel is played by Shiri Appleby, who’s best known for her lead role as Liz Parker on “Roswell”; more recently she played Adam’s nice Jewish girlfriend, Natalia, on “Girls.” Rachel is complex in the way that all humans are complex — though she masterfully encapsulates the neuroses commonly found in highly driven people in certain industries. She’s manipulative yet self-sabotaging, vulnerable yet strong and, perhaps most of all, extremely good at her job.

Like its main character, “UnREAL” smacks of authenticity — that’s because one of its co-creators, Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, spent three years as a producer of “The Bachelor.” Shapiro based “UnREAL” on her experiences there — from the punishing hours to producers being rewarded for making contestants cry on camera

The first season of “UnREAL,” which aired last June and is now streaming on Hulu, was met with acclaim, with many praising its feminism and originality.

“UnREAL” offers a singular meditation on stardom, media mendacity, sexism, and competition among women,” D.T. Max wrote in The New Yorker.

Jewish references are sprinkled throughout the series, such as the time Rachel memorably said, “sheket b’vakasha,” Hebrew for “be quiet” — or, more aptly, “shut up.” And, this being about “the industry” there are loads of Jewish characters, too, from this season’s Jewish contestant, Yael (Monica Barbaro) — called “Hot Rachel” by the crew, thanks to her passing resemblance to Appleby’s character — and Rachel’s new love interest, Coleman Wasserman (Michael Rady), who was brought on to replace Rachel as the show’s on-set boss, or showrunner.

Next week’s episode, the mid-point of the second season, was directed by Appleby herself — something she’s long wanted to do. (In fact, Appleby got the “Girls” gig because she was shadowing a director of the show.) Appleby tells JTA that this episode will find Rachel dealing with the aftermath of a disturbing assault by her ex-boyfriend, as well as follow a Confederate flag-bikini wearing “Everlasting” contestant as she brings the African-American suitor to her Southern hometown.

In addition to directing more episodes next season,  “I’m trying to get other directing [jobs] on other shows,” Appleby says.

JTA spoke to Appleby about her own Jewish background, playing a complex antihero and more.

JTA: What was your Jewish upbringing like? I’ve read that your father is Ashkenazi and mother is Sephardic. Did you grow up with traditions from both?

Appleby: I grew up going to Hebrew school. We celebrated all the holidays. I was bat mitzvahed. My parents are involved in the temple. Judaism has been a huge part of my life.

Is it still?

Yes, it is. Our family is still very close. We still celebrate everything. I still have a Jewish identity.

Is it important to you to play Jewish characters?

It’s not something that I actively seek out, but when it is a Jewish character, I can definitely relate to it.

Do you know if the character of Rachel was always written as Jewish, before you landed the part?

I think she was Jewish, but I don’t think it was for her to be as Jewish as she’s become. I think that has a lot to do with me just improvising and throwing things out, and the writers liking it.

We’re seeing more female antiheroes like Rachel on television. As a woman, what’s it like to get a part like this?

It’s incredible. It’s best-case scenario, obviously. I didn’t realize that it was as groundbreaking as it is, but it’s interesting to be a part of it and to be a part of the conversation.

Do you always agree with what Rachel does?

I don’t agree with everything that she does, but at the same time, I understand why the writers are doing it and I’m playing a character. You don’t need to agree with everything that she does to tell the story.

What do you think of her as a person?

I feel for her. I feel empathy for her. I don’t think she knows what would make her happy. She obviously has a hard time trusting the world and that’s a really unfortunate way to navigate life.

What are your hopes for Rachel going forward?

I hope that she learns to trust, quite honestly. Just to trust the world around her. I think that would be a huge step.