You & Me review: ITVX drama is trite and superficial at best, and wildly emotionally manipulative at worst

Harry Lawtey’s understated performance can’t save ITVX’s transparently manipulative romance drama You & Me

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This review contains detailed spoilers for all three episodes of You & Me.

You & Me takes place then and now, cutting back and forth across two timelines. Between then and now, it quickly becomes apparent, some tragedy has occurred – quicker, though, than the show is willing to concede this, instead trying to turn establishing exposition into suspenseful act break cliffhangers. Then, Ben (Harry Lawtey) is young and carefree, falling in love with Jess (Sophia Brown) and dreaming of starting a new life together. Now, Ben is a single father, struggling to hold it all together, offering faux-portentous narration about the moment his life changed forever. Can he love again after a seismic loss?

Ahead of the series airing, writer Jamie Davis said he envisaged You & Me as “a romantic drama with the structure of a thriller”. That’s accurate, and it’s clear enough that intent was successfully realised, but in this instance it’s not a structure that accentuates the drama – more often than not, You & Me feels like a piece of television that’s constantly getting in its own way. Attempts to build suspense by gradually revealing the tragedy (Jess, conspicuously absent in the present, is going through a difficult labour – what could it mean?!) feel strikingly unsophisticated, screenwriting as a collection of cheap tricks and not much else.

At an absolute best, the ostensible thriller structure means imposing a pace and a tempo that diminishes the emotional beats – certain developments feel obscured, character growth elided, so on. At worst, and more often, such strained contortions don’t just diminish the meaning, but changes it, taking something that could be affecting and making it gauche – or worse, making it comic.

Towards the end of the first episode, Ben meets Emma (Jessica Barden), a young woman who suffered a loss of her own; the second episode, following the same then and now structure, delves into Emma’s past and traces the death of her sister Joey. Then, Joey falls off a balcony – sharp, sudden, tragic. Now, Emma tries to open up to Ben about her sister. Then, we find Joey in a hospital bed, a little shaken but without a scratch. Except, of course, barely a beat later she gets the news that her post-fall MRI scan has revealed a brain tumour. This unfolds across a few minutes, and in this context, presented this way, it’s little short of laughable.

After not much time at all, it becomes easy to key into You & Me’s wavelength, to understand exactly where and how and when it’s going to feint. Much of the third episode is dedicated to a small, personal crisis on Ben’s part, brought about when he discovers old texts that seem to suggest she was cheating on him during those halcyon days of Then – the resolution is obvious, to say the least, even if the strained mechanics that achieve it are slightly less guessable. You & Me feels a little like a particularly graceless magic performance, all the strings visibly on show with no hope of maintaining the illusion.

Sophia Brown as Jess and Harry Lawtey as Ben in You & Me, on the bus together (Credit: ITV)Sophia Brown as Jess and Harry Lawtey as Ben in You & Me, on the bus together (Credit: ITV)
Sophia Brown as Jess and Harry Lawtey as Ben in You & Me, on the bus together (Credit: ITV)

It’s a shame. Every so often, You & Me’s script stumbles into occasional flashes of insight and truth – would it have worked better had it been presented more straightforwardly? Well, yes, obviously, but even then “better” doesn’t necessarily equate to “good”. That central conceit doesn’t help, but it’s a manifestation of contrived and superficial instincts that crop up throughout; these are problems that aren’t just structural but foundational, if you like. (For example: in his very first line of dialogue, Ben’s son asks why he doesn’t have... well, you can probably guess.) There’s a mawkish, saccharine quality to You & Me, only very rarely breaking from the wildly emotionally manipulative.

No, where You & Me conjures those flashes of insight is with Harry Lawtey’s performance as Ben. Lawtey is one of the more impressive actors on HBO’s Industry, but also at the same time one of the more easily overlooked; there, he’s giving a very subtle and understated performance, not so much overshadowed by the work of his peers but certainly not as immediately in-your-face noticeable. You & Me isn’t quite the star vehicle he deserves, but he’s doing remarkable work with what little there is on the page – in Lawtey’s performance, if nowhere else, there exists a version of You & Me that’s poignant and devastating.

But Lawtey – and, to a lesser extent, Hesmondhalgh and Barden; Brown is barely in it, so it’s hard to tell – is the only real redeeming feature to speak of here. It’s poorly directed, too, at times clearly inspired by the non-linear structure of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, but lacking the conviction to really commit to the divide between warm hues and cold tones that signifies now and then. Something like this needs a certain precision of form and execution, and You & Me lacks that. It really is difficult not to conclude that on just about every level, from the script through to the direction, the thriller structure was a mistake.

Sometimes, to describe something as “emotionally manipulative” can feel like a facile criticism. Every story is deliberately constructed to elicit a response, or to put it another way, to manipulate emotions. Few, though, are quite so transparent about that as this show is. That starts to feel like You & Me’s most damning flaw: not only is it wildly emotionally manipulative, it’s bad at it too.

You & Me is available on ITVX now, with an ITV1 broadcast scheduled for later in the year. I watched all three episodes of the series before writing this review. You can listen to us discuss You & Me on our Screen Babble podcast here, and read more of our TV reviews here.

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