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The brilliance of the pulpy, satirical thriller You — born on Lifetime, revived on Netflix — rests in how delicately it unravels the deception of “likability.” The show’s stalker/serial killer protagonist Joe Goldberg is terrifying but likable (aided by Penn Badgley’s beauty). The former object of his affection, Guinevere Beck, whom he murdered at the end of Season 1, was sympathetic but annoying (aided by Elizabeth Lail’s cool-girl patina). Even still, You has no interest in admiring the wink-wink machismo that ruled during cable’s prime: Instead, the show deconstructs rom-com tropes to highlight how Joe’s amiability should actually scare the wits out of you. After all, emotionally intelligent people can also be some of the most dangerous manipulators. Joe is no antihero, but a straight-up villain.
Over the course of the first season, we watch as the unassuming bookseller uses advanced technology to stalk, woo and then control wannabe writer Beck, all the while secretly murdering anyone standing between him and his fantasy of love. Truthfully, this is not a concept that initially appealed to me, but the show soon becomes addictive in part due to Joe’s velvety narration, which takes you deep into the denial, self-delusions and justifications that keep his impulses whirring. Voiceover on TV can feel cheap and grating, a shortcut to character development. But Joe’s relentless apostrophe, typically addressing his darling à la mode — the interchangeable you of the title — provides a fuller portrait of his monstrosity.
AIR DATE Dec 26, 2019
Imagine a survivor who carries the sophistication of Hannibal Lecter, the cunning of Tom Ripley, the bloodthirstiness of Dexter Morgan…and the emotional neediness of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rebecca Bunch. Joe is the worst type of misogynist; the kind that imagines himself a savior to wounded birds and wishes for a return to the age of chivalry and courtly love. Just as you start to think he sounds humble, reasonable or vulnerable should be the very moment you feel a chill down your spine.
You floundered on Lifetime, which recently snipped its scripted original programming in favor of a return to its women-in-peril movie brand, but the show became a sleeper hit on Netflix thanks to its binge-friendly cliff-hangers. The writing is self-consciously hip — though sometimes mistaking literary references for inherent intelligence — so the plot lunacies go down a bit smoother here than they would on more mind-numbing programs. (Ya know, glass cages hidden in basements, soviet prison guard mentors, the world’s most brain-dead cops, etc.)
I’m sure many people who loved Season 1 will grouse at Season 2, which reboots the series to Los Angeles and delves deeper into Joe’s psyche/trauma. You true believers may have glommed onto its shadowy New York City setting and Joe’s erudite mystery, but Season 2 will appeal to viewers who will love to see a snob like Joe get eaten alive by Angeleno hollowness, like a cadaver dissolving in lye. In other words, viewers like me.
After “accidentally” killing Beck in the first-season finale and framing her therapist for the murder, Joe believes he’s gotten away with it all…until another ex he left for dead (Ambyr Childers) comes a’knocking. Now it’s his turn to know what it’s like to feel hunted. In order to escape Candace’s revenge, he absconds to the one place she’d never think to look for a vampire like him: sunny, dumby L.A.
Now going by the name Will Bettelheim, he soon scores a job as a book clerk at an upscale grocery store called Anavrin (Nirvana backwards, natch) and becomes enmeshed in the lives of his co-workers, including self-involved aspiring filmmaker Forty Quinn, played by James Scully, and the dude’s twin sister, effortlessly likable chef Love, played by Victoria Pedretti. (Now just keep in mind what I said about likability.)
There’s more overt levity this season, as Joe trades winding his way through Ivy League brats for winding his way through wellness-obsessed ding-dongs. Where Zach Cherry’s oblivious bookstore clerk Ethan was the sum total of comic relief in Season 1, now we get many more laughs from Joe’s L.A. sputtering. (The season’s best episode centers around control-freak Joe whizzing through a nonconsensual LSD drugging.)
For a man who perennially believes himself to be smarter and slicker than every other person around him, Joe finds himself constantly foiled by the horoscope-worshipping, pseudoscience peddling hipsters surrounding him. (Clearly, he can no longer get by as an Adonis in a city where Adonises are a dime a dozen.) He’s no criminal mastermind, but a criminal hardly one step ahead of his own self-destruction. And maybe he was never all that talented a liar at all, but a predator who merely barnacled himself to gullible women.
Once again, he can’t help but try to rescue another neighbor child, much as he was rescued by a psychotic bookstore owner when he, too, was a victimized kid. But while Paco (Luca Padovan) was small and abused, mouthy teen Ellie (Jenna Ortega, a standout performer) just thinks Joe is another Hollywood creep who wants to screw her. Film buff Ellie will do anything to get a leg up in the industry, including hanging out with a creepy comedian nicknamed Hendie (Chris D’Elia) who’s got a penchant for mentoring/abusing young girls that happens to mirror the grooming strategies of real-life animator John Kricfalusi. Witnessing the horrified self-delusion with which a predator like Joe tackles the #MeToo movement is a beautiful mind-fuck to behold.
While I desperately miss Hari Nef, who played Beck’s hilariously self-aggrandizing grad program rival last season, I, like Joe, soon fell head-over-heels for Pedretti (a dead ringer for fellow chill chick Kat Dennings). She plays young widow Love with prickly self-assuredness, a far cry from insecure waifling Beck. You’re never quite sure if she’s as preternaturally adept at ignoring red flags as her predecessor or playing a different game altogether with Joe.
While the writers sometimes trip over their endless layers of irony (how many times can a guy fall in love with a stupidly named woman?), You remains as captivating as ever. Any other show would beg you to love its protagonist while revealing their childhood trauma. This one reminds you to keep your empathy under lock and key.
Cast: Penn Badgley, Victoria Pedretti, James Scully, Jenna Ortega, Carmela Zumbado, Ambyr Childers, Robin Lord Taylor, Chris D’Elia, Melanie Field, Marielle Scott, Charlie Barnett, Danny Vasquez
Executive Producers: Greg Berlanti, Sera Gamble, Sarah Schechter, Leslie Morgenstein, Gina Girolamo, Marcos Siega
Premieres: Thursday, Dec. 26, on Netflix
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