Perhaps the most deliciously satisfying thing about You is that it began as a Lifetime show. It seemed to fit right in, too — based on the novel of the same name by Caroline Kepnes, the show followed bookseller Joe Goldberg as he began to stalk a woman named Beck, gradually inserting himself more and more into her life as he attempted to woo her and isolate her from all her friends. You know. Lifetime stuff.
After a killer-but-little-watched first season, the show migrated to Netflix, where it will maybe find the audience it deserves — and yes, it does deserve it. Because You masquerades as trashy thriller in order to get you to underestimate it — dismiss it, even — while it goes to work subverting every assumption you had about it. It’s a trick that doesn’t seem repeatable, but in You’s second season, out December 26th, the show somehow pulls it off.
The second season of You is a bit of a reset. You’s first season was fairly conclusive (I’ll be vague to preserve the fun for those who haven’t seen it), so in its second season, Joe — trying to start over after the first season’s events in New York — moves to LA, a place he hates, but also a place no one knows him.
After briefly entertaining the notion of being a changed man who has left his stalking ways behind, Joe quickly falls into his old patterns. This time, his obsession is a woman named Love, his coworker at the hybrid wellness store / bookshop Anavrin. (Spell it backward and groan with me.)
At first, it seems like You is simply repeating itself, playing the same beats with a different woman in Joe’s sights. To a certain extent, that’s true — there’s even a running subplot about a troubled woman who lives next door with a plucky kid Joe becomes protective of, a mirror image of season 1 — but as the twists pile up, the reflection comes across as intentional and effective. And it’s not like there aren’t new things happening here. Love’s codependent relationship with her brother takes You into some unexpected places, and the show’s new setting gives it new arenas for exploring toxic masculinity. There’s also some leftover threads from last season that turn the pressure up. And finally, harkening back to a similar moment in season 1, when the show finally breaks free of Joe’s perspective to let the audience in on Love’s side of the story, things really take a turn.
What makes You subversive, brilliant television is delightfully simple: Joe is an idiot. Sure, he reads a lot of books and, as an observer of people, is pretty deft at manipulating the fundamental selfishness of others. But as a criminal? He’s hilariously incompetent. This is where You twists the knife you never knew it slipped in, because the point of the show is that he doesn’t have to be good at any of this.
You makes it easy to condemn Joe because we are privy to his private moments and thoughts, the ways he justifies every overreach and horrible action. But to everyone else? He’s just a man, standing in front of a girl, patiently waiting for her to love him. He benefits from decades of cultural attitudes that have worn away at the agency of women, of romance tropes that valorize the persistence of men in pursuit of a woman, and the gendered head games that give men the upper hand in most every interaction they have.
It does all this while also being extremely fun pulp nonsense, which somehow makes it feel more dangerous. Throughout it all, Joe Goldberg is… funny? Sharp? And, thanks to Penn Badgley, perhaps the best voiceover narrator you’ve ever heard? You like Joe, and, because of a combination of Badgley’s performance and the incredible savvy of every member of the crew that points a camera or light at him, you frequently suffer whiplash for liking him, as he goes from charming book nerd to sardonic lead to super creep in the same shot.
What we call prestige television is often a function of marketing. Prestige shows — the kind of stuff you see on HBO and sweeping the Emmys — involves a lot of putting on airs, signaling an intent to be literary or ambitious. You does no such thing. It is every inch the Lifetime show it began as, and just as wickedly sharp or thoughtful as another show with loftier goals. This makes You feel dangerous. Like it shouldn’t work so well. And then, when you start to think about why it does — well then, the show has you.