The commercial success of You has been one of the most interesting stories on television in the past year. Created by Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, and based on the novels of Caroline Kepnes, You debuted on Lifetime where it found a small audience before streaming on Netflix not long after its run where the show found an even larger audience internationally, while the commissioned second season, originally set to once again be a Lifetime series, went straight to Netflix.
The series is an interesting concoction; being linked with the many outputs of Greg Berlanti means the series comes with a high degree of gloss, is well put together on a production level, while also boasting an incredibly good looking cast that included Penn Badgley and Shay Mitchell, both having come from glossy escapist fare such as Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars, which one could argue have similarities to You given that their themes and characters were surrounded by technology and social media and the toxic behaviour that can stem from the simple idea of owning a mobile phone.
Being a Lifetime/Netflix series meant the series had a considerably more adult edge compared to the more teen flavoured series that one would find on The CW or Freeform, and the eventual series played like a heady concoction of themes and ideas that were part of many late 80s/90s stalker thrillers (think of Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, or even the high benchmark of the genre, 1987’s Fatal Attraction), and the current crop of character based thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, themselves something of a throwback in terms of story and yet incredibly modern, with great female characters front and centre, something that comes down to having great female authors crafting them such as Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins and not falling to the misogynistic whims of a test audience that somewhat marred the climax of Fatal Attraction in 1987.
While those works had narratives driven by women, You puts its focus very much on a male character, Penn Badgley’s Joe and the series has its cake and eats it when it comes to its portrayal and development of such a character. Everything about You is filtered through Joe and while at least one of the first season’s episodes was given over fully to the object of his ‘affection’, Beck (a wonderful performance from Elisabeth Weil), the series ends up being both an exploration of toxic obsessive male behaviour, while at the same time somewhat making the character an anti-heroic type, one of many male anti-heroes to dominate the cable/streaming television world and who would ensnare a strangely adoring audience who came to not only enjoy his antics but also be appreciative of the attractive good looks of Badgley.
There is an inherent complexity to some of the writing and plotting of You that makes the prospect of the second season an interesting one. Penn Badgley’s performance as Joe is entertaining, simultaneously controlled and unhinged with a genuine level of menace that goes with those good looks that makes him the most photogenic of anti-heroes on our television screens, but the first season ended with him getting away with not only many of his crimes, but also killing Beck in a story telling move that was genuinely shocking, and while its cliff-hanger ending revealed that one of his previous victims, Candace (Ambyr Childers), was still alive the whole time after having hinted that she too was dead, it left one wondering what direction Gamble would take a second season, especially given that Kempes had written her own sequel, Hidden Bodies.
The answer is a change of location, with the second season moving to the other side of the country, going from the first season’s New York setting to this season’s choice of Los Angeles and a new unwilling victim for Joe to obsess over, this time Love (Victoria Pedretti). The location may be different, and we may be surrounded by a new supporting cast, but very little else has changed with You.
As it pertains to the second season, this isn’t actually a bad thing because the series is still as entertaining and brilliantly ridiculous as the first, even more so, but you get the feeling on the one hand that the writing staff know they’re writing something preposterous, and that sense of self knowledge can sometimes add to the fun.
Like Breaking Bad, one has the feeling that the writers, headed by Gamble, seem to take great joy in writing themselves into corners and seeing how they are able to get out of them and it’s with this element that You is at its strongest. For all of Joe’s brilliant ability to stalk and manipulate his way into the lives to those he is obsessed with, there is wickedly humorous side to the series whenever events get out away from him and he has to improvise, something that comes with a body count and that wonderfully moody voiceover where he tries to compartmentalise his rationale and behaviour.
For the most part the second season does this incredibly well and the season hits a high point in its eighth episode when, under the influence of LSD, Joe finds himself unable to tell what’s real from delusion and whether the blood that keeps appearing his hands is the result of his hallucinations or whether or not he has killed someone.
Where the season threatens to come undone somewhat is its utilisation of #MeToo themes. It’s unavoidable with a television series such as this that this plot and this type of central character will come into the orbit of sexual assault and coercion and yet it’s hard to shake the feeling the series’ handling of characters dealing with sexual assault by those with a level of fame and power is somewhat mishandled.
For starters, one of the key supporting characters this season, Carmela Zumbado’s Delilah, is a journalist who has her own story involving being sexually assaulted and is trying to investigate the man responsible, a prominent comedian, and bring him to justice. For starters the eventual justice meted out to his character comes from Joe in an episode that is entertaining as always but which also seems to function as a means for the audience to actually enjoy Joe’s antics in a way that means we don’t have to feel guilty, which wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this is season two and we know he’s killed a character that we came to care for last season, while the character of Delilah herself is one that we come to care for but who becomes part of the series’ ever higher death count and at the mercy of an end of season plot twist which cannot help but leave a sour taste in the mouth.
You wants to straddle the line between being pulpy, ridiculous, anti-heroic fun and yet wants to say something profound about toxic masculinity and sexual assault and it feels as if the writers cannot combine that sense of entertainment with a profound message. The first season kept things focused on Joe and Beck, with occasional interludes and fun to be had in Shay Mitchell’s character who threatened to ‘ruin’ everything with her own Beck obsessions.
In taking the series to Los Angeles, the series gets to have fun with its portrayal of the Californian lifestyle, and the inherent obsessions with healthy living, the intense behaviour from Love’s family and her brother’s attempts to crack Hollywood, with the series even getting to throw in some meta humour when Love’s brother Forty (James Scully in a performance that cannot help but remind you of Jeremy Sisto’s from Six Feet Under) decides to adapt Beck’s posthumous book, and with it the characters passing criticisms and comments on the book as if they’re fans of the show and the first season.
By throwing in a #MeToo plotline, You tries to say something important, but when it decides to treat its central conduit to that movement in a horribly disregarding way, and simultaneously throwing in a shock twist that will either work brilliantly or not depending on how you feel about what it eventually says about its central female character, it cannot help but leave you feeling queasy at some of the story telling directions.
It still retains that entertaining spark, and the final episode does throw in twist after twist, while also offering a mini bottle episode that pretty much hinges on Badgley and Pedretti putting in great performances with the bulk of the screen time taken up by them in one location. The question now though is, can You make it work a third time? The finale offers up something that initially suggests a changing of the status quo of the series, before revealing that nothing has changed at all and that Joe has found a new victim for his obsessions.
It’s a ten-episode run that is, for the most part, every bit as entertaining as it was first time and being released around Christmas time meant that it’s such an easy series to binge in very few sittings. Yes, certain elements cannot help bur jar badly given the somewhat well meaning intentions, and you might hate yourself a little for enjoying it, but it makes up for another wickedly entertaining run of television, even if you’re left thinking to yourself that maybe, just maybe, the formula might just be on the verge of running a little thin if it does get a third season to do it all over again.