Sera Gamble is a storied TV writer. Sera, along with veteran producer Greg Berlanti adapted the novel You into a Netflix hit. The path to television success wasn’t easy, nor was it linear. Sera spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about how ‘you’ can write TV gold and what makes Joe Goldberg tick.
“I’m kind of an ‘anxty‘ teen poet in a way,” joked Sera Gamble. “Now that I spend so much time writing for television, my favorite thing to write is about what scares me. I like to write about things I don’t understand. When things are going really well, I’m writing about things I want to understand better.”
As a writer and executive producer, Gamble is known for successful TV shows like Supernatural, Aquarius, The Magicians, Supernatural, Gender SWAP, and the new Netflix thriller, You. We asked her what makes this thriller stand out from the pack. It all comes down to the writer’s mindset and deciding what you bring to the project.
“When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, I’m kind of a cross-stitch. I’m attracted to writing them because they’re so archetypal. The best monsters show us what it’s like to be a human being,” she added. “It’s such a deep toolbox and so significant when trying to explain the stuff we don’t understand inside of us.”
With two Supernatural titles on her resume, the TV writer also has the most fun writing stories about creatures. “It’s good work if you can get it. It’s really fun and so creative,” she said. By focusing on the things she wants to understand about the human mind and embracing fear, Sera Gamble is able to create universally relatable foes.
This mindset is also present in You which stars Penn Badgley (Margin Call, Gossip Girl) and Ambyr Childers (The Master, Gangster Squad).
Talking To ‘You’
The novel You, written by Caroline Kepnes, spoke to Gamble and the series’ other co-creator Greg Berlanti (The Flash; Love, Simon). Gamble said, “Greg read the book first and called me. He said, ‘I’m reading this book and it feels like binging a show you can’t stop watching. I think it would make a great TV show.’”
Berlanti sent the book to several friends who loved it and he knew it was a story meant for television. “The novel is sort of an inside joke and Joe Goldberg’s thoughts are so uncensored, intimate, and raw. There’s something so seductive about being inside that to realize how fucked up he was because you’re kind of on his team.”
“That raised questions for me,” Gamble asserted about the anti-hero. “Objectively, I understand what Joe is doing, which is nostalgic and wrong, but it pushes a lot of buttons for me as a romantic premise. It made me realize it’s not so far from the romantic stories I grew up loving. I was interested in exploring that.”
In the first episode, we hear a voiceover from Joe. He seems to be a young bookkeeper at a local bookstore. We hear his inner thoughts. We hear the best of him and the worst of him. When Beck enters, we know Joe is hypothetically a master of the human condition, but we then also see his darkness.
“Worst case scenario, the things we think of as romance are actually stalking and the removal of your beloved agency. It’s pushing against the boundaries of society. In real life, it also leads to violence. We all felt that was very worth exploring,” added the Sera.
Berlanti and Gamble had been working to get a TV pilot made years before, but You is the first one to click for the duo. Gamble mused one of the reasons Berlanti may have chosen her to tackle this role was because he needed a female perspective on the characters, especially since a male stalker is involved.
“A stalker is committing violence. It’s important to dive into what that means from a gender-based perspective, so it felt like we were a good team. I come from a family of psychologists. My mom was studying psychology and my dad was studying the human brain from the neurology and pathology, so that was the dinner conversations. Discussing the human brain is home for me.”
As part of their dissection on the brain, Berlanti and Gamble wanted to “lift the carpet of the genre.” She said they wanted to unfold the classic hero and burn it to the ground. “We’re not interested in romanticizing his romantic spirit. We’re interested in showing the problematic sides.”
The Social Media Reality
In addition to unwrapping the romantic lead, the writers also wanted to break down today’s’ social media. Somewhat similar to the contained thriller Searching, You showcases how individuals really use social media. Through Joe, we see a man stalk, dissect, and learn everything about his prey. We also learn he believes he’s doing something to benefit her and their imagined relationship.
“There are other stories about killers, about stalkers, and people who use technology, but Joe isn’t a super genius hacker. He’s just a regular guy. He doesn’t even spend a lot of time on social media. He’s just harvesting the same tools we all have and following them as far as he can take them. There’s no special skill set.”
Gamble’s main point is that everyone is putting out more information than they think they are. In another example from the TV pilot, we see Joe drag and drop a photo of Candace into Google Images, which then provides a proximity address. This allows for him to then find her apartment.
Joe can find out where Candace hangs out, who she hangs out with, what she likes to do, and all sorts of small nuggets about her life. “Frankly, even if you are not on social media but all of your friends are, the information is there. Privacy is gone. It’s dead. The technology has outpaced our lives and we’re scrambling to keep up,” warns Sera.
Adapting Joe Goldberg
“The tone is fairly consistent with the book. Caroline Kepnes has a sparkling, dry sense of humor and we loved the level of self-awareness in her character. But, the adaptation did need to make way for a new medium. A novel can live in one man’s head, but TV is a visual medium about relationships,” Gambled explained.
The creators added side characters and flushed out some minor roles so more could happen on screen. This way, these other characters could interact with Joe and further unravel his character. So, not only do we hear his thoughts, but we see how he responds to those around him in his everyday life.
“We have this baseline rule where we don’t call the main character a creature or monster or file him into a sort of category where we don’t understand him. I don’t believe that people who do terrible things are so different from the rest of us.” Sera added that there are exceptions, but most people who do bad things are on our spectrum.
“We don’t start by calling Joe Goldberg a monster. We start by showing the attributes of the character, then we show what he’s capable of. Then, we show what makes him tick. Then, we show how he’s able to go so far. He has a very strong code around love, which is relevant to the gender dynamics of today.”
The writer said the recent movements in society have focused on the viewpoints of women, but she was also interested in what these messages do to men. “Joe has internalized a lot of strong messages about what it means to be a good man. To him, a good man would do anything for his woman. You believe in what is right.”
Clearly, Joe is misguided, but when he crosses the line, “his intent is a love which borders on obsession. But that’s not a line he can see. For Joe, obsessive love is love and that’s what love is. If you’re not willing to do stuff that might be distasteful to you – like hitting someone with a hammer – then are you really in love?”
Writing A Social Experiment
“The social experiment of the show is that the protagonist has been erected with these qualities that are common among heroes and antiheroes. Most of the good guys are young, dashing, straight white men. It wouldn’t be a great movie if they didn’t at least punch somebody in the face.”
According to Gamble, Joe is meant to get away with certain liberties. “We are programmed at a young age to recognize the hero or people who look and act like Joe Goldberg for doing things because we expect him to be the hero of the story. It’s our predisposition to forgive Joe for his trespasses.”
Some online backlash for the show focuses on the fact that Candace doesn’t have curtains. Joe is able to watch her from the street. This may be a script “oversight,” but it feels like blaming Candace for this is not the right mentality. Either way, a man she just met is stalking her.
Despite the harsh realities presented in the show about social media, Gamble is glad new filmmakers are embracing technologies as creatives. She is a producer, writer, and creator, who feels it’s all part of the “bigger picture.” She also believes “there should as few barriers to telling a story as possible,” even if that means using a smartphone as a camera. “We all benefit from the evolution of story.”
Transitioning You To Netflix
New generations of TV viewers are certainly transitioning into the medium and making their own stories, but the show You has somewhat evolved on its own in a short time. Originally, the series began on Lifetime, but was removed because of low viewing numbers. But, Netflix welcomed the series, which is now a major hit.
“Lifetime fought hard for the show. It was a bit of a brand departure for them, starting with the fact that the lead is a man. They fought hard, but it became clear that it wasn’t a show that fitted their business model. It speaks to a bigger movement in the industry. Netflix has the ability to tailor itself to you.”
“Netflix is a different streaming service for everybody who switches on. My basic understanding is that they base their recommendations on what you’ve watched and kept watching in the past. They don’t profile you based on gender, age, country. All they do is see what you enjoy and tailor your viewing experience to that.”
Gamble joked that her Netflix queue is packed with both bloody war movies and British baking shows because that’s how she spends her binge TV time. “We expected to see a little lift when the show went to Netflix. This happened to Riverdale for Berlanti and The Magicians for me, but no one could have predicted the high viewership we’ve seen. I don’t really know how to process the numbers because they’re so high. They don’t correlate.”
Over the years, Gamble has seen gorgeous shows get canceled and unfathomable shows go on and on for endless seasons. From her perspective, it’s clear that there is a formula to make a hit, but it’s vital to follow her gut. While working on Supernatural, she was told it would be canceled every year, but it’s now been on the air for nearly 15 seasons.
“There is so much more TV than there used to be and that creates a demand for new properties. Procedurals really don’t work anymore in this model. Providers have to get a little more niche. It provides incentives for them to buy riskier ideas. For me, that is a godsend. I don’t know if I could have been successful in the TV model I started out in.”
As a writer, Sera Gamble wants to tailor work for unconventional audiences. “I want to follow the craziest idea down the rabbit hole and it’s the perfect time for that. I was so determined and hungry, but I want to acknowledge that it feels hard to break in because it is hard. It’s competitive. At the core, we’re also artists and that’s not something you get great at it in 2-4 years. It’s a lifelong pursuit.”
In the beginning, all creative types obviously want to make it quickly, but now Gamble sees it as a blessing that that didn’t happen for her.
“Success doesn’t need to be measured today. I’m a better writer than I was 5 years ago and I’m not the writer I’ll be in 10 years. For now, I feel lucky I can pay my bills while improving my craft.”