December 24 is traditionally the longest night of the year
for those young enough to anticipate a major holiday haul. But in 2019, teens and the many young adults who still rely on the beneficence of their parents are sure to reserve some impatience for the following evening—because at the stroke of midnight P.T. on the 26th, Netflix will deliver one last gift to the youth of America: a second season of their favorite psychological-thriller-slash-social-media-satire-slash-rom-com-parody, You.
The show wasn’t always a millennial and Gen Z sensation. Though it debuted on Lifetime, in September 2018, with strong reviews, a top-shelf creative team led by Sera Gamble (The Magicians) and Greg Berlanti (the mega-producer behind TV’s multi-platform DC and Archie Comics franchises) and the network’s vote of confidence in the form of a two-season order, You faltered in the ratings; live viewership throughout its initial 10-episode run hovered around 600,000. As an early fan, I was baffled by the lack of enthusiasm around this dark, witty, provocative series about a New York bookstore manager who’s willing to lie, spy and even kill if that’s what it takes to make his romantic fantasies a reality. In a rare move, Lifetime decided to cancel it after all.
By the time the first season debuted on Netflix last December 26, the service had already delighted the show’s then-tiny fanbase by scooping it up for a second. It was only on its new platform that—through some combination of demographics, binge-worthy pacing and school-vacation timing—You reached the streaming-native viewers whose power over the cultural conversation (to say nothing of their skill at meme-making) confers the ability to transform a low-rated cable drama into a viral phenomenon. By mid-January, Netflix (whose selectively publicized viewership stats, it should be noted, rarely paint a full picture) had estimated that You would reach 40 million subscribers within its first four weeks on the platform. More than just a sleeper hit, it became a case study in the streamer’s unique access to an audience that grew up watching TV online and ignoring whatever was happening on cable.
Few shows seem so perfectly calibrated for that cohort. The first season of You, an adaptation of Caroline Kepnes’ novel of the same name, opens with young aspiring writer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail) wandering into the bookstore run by literary snob and hopeless romantic Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley, in a role that skewers the charmingly bookish but ultimately creepy character he played on The CW’s late-’00s teen hit Gossip Girl). If their meet-cute leaves her mildly charmed, it plunges him into obsession. Certain that this fresh-faced, mildly narcissistic MFA student is his soulmate, Joe stalks Beck on the internet, steals her phone and monitors her messages in hopes of manipulating her into his arms. Her sometime boyfriend—whom Joe traps in a glass cage in the bookstore’s basement—and a female friend with an obvious crush on her both wind up dead. Beck’s demise becomes an inevitability.
In that first season, You made for an addictive thriller. And its bleak commentary on both the young-adult hellscape of social media and dating apps—which normalize stalking along with enabling it—as well as the low-key insanity baked into beloved pop-culture romances like You’ve Got Mail and The Notebook lent depth to what could’ve been typical Lifetime psycho-boyfriend fare. Yet even when Joe’s aggrieved pre-Beck girlfriend Candace (Ambyr Childers) appeared in the culminating scene of the finale, the show seemed guaranteed to get repetitive in its Netflix-backed second season. What could Joe, the killer whose deranged narration framed each episode, possibly do next except find some other woman and love her to death while inwardly railing (somewhat convincingly) against a world full of Instagram addicts who don’t read the classics?
Well, he could start over. And he does, in that mecca of self-reinvention Los Angeles, a place Joe chooses because he’s on the run from Candace, who has vowed to make him acknowledge his own monstrousness, and she knows how much he hates that flaky, celebrity-worshiping place. Joe is a novel psychopath—if he qualifies as a psychopath at all, a question the second season takes up in meta fashion—because he gets no pleasure out of violence. In season 1, he saw his victims as collateral damage of his quest for a happily-ever-after worthy of Nora Ephron. But by the time he gets to the West Coast, a guilty conscience has him vowing to steer clear of the opposite sex.
The romance fast doesn’t last long. After renaming himself Will Bettelheim and renting a drab apartment from a Hollywood gossip columnist (Carmela Zumbado’s Delilah), Joe gets a job running the woo-woo books section at an upscale health food market—where he’s immediately smitten with a sweet, self-possessed co-worker (Victoria Pedretti) whose name happens to be Love. (You has many charms, but subtlety is not one of them.) This time, the infatuation is mutual. And since Love’s needy, obnoxious twin brother (James Scully’s Forty) is the store manager and their parents happen to own the place, Joe is quickly absorbed into the family’s crunchy yet well-heeled world. Still, the terrifying glass cage has accompanied him to California, because a few loose ends remain to be tied up before he can move on to a life of passion, companionship and virtue.
In place of the rom-coms and influencers You satirized in season 1, the new episodes savage the debauched playboys, #MeToo-era Hollywood “nice guys,” self-styled New Age healers and performatively woke trend chasers who populate his new town. (“Don’t kink-shame the dead!” one of Love’s friends hisses at a funeral.) It’s a wise choice, one that preserves the show’s black humor without retreading old ground. Yet what’s most ingenious about bringing Joe to L.A., in an arc based on Kepnes’ sequel Hidden Bodies, is that for all his moaning about showbiz wannabes and wellness airheads, he has plenty in common with people whose quests for fulfillment take them to selfish, often destructive extremes. It makes sense that some of them see right through him, while others become cracked mirrors for him to gaze into and find his own sickness reflected.
Continuing to follow Joe does present a few problems, the least of which is a growing list of plot holes. More worrisome is that, because he’s more effective as a Frankenstein’s monster of cultural excesses than as a coherent, realistic character, the writers’ attempts to fill in his origin story with too-frequent flashbacks to his dysfunctional childhood fall flat. A fun, fast-paced episode late in the season that puts Joe at the mercy of LSD and a ticking clock sets up a relatively low-energy conclusion.
Equal parts smart, silly and scary, You remains an offbeat, uniquely contemporary pleasure on the whole. And what’s funny about season 2—with its slightly older, less social-media-obsessed cast of characters and its many timeless caricatures of L.A. self-involvement and self-reinvention—is that ends up feeling less specific to the teen and 20-something audience that discovered their ideal show in its predecessor. The Christmas-break crowd may already be counting down the hours until the new episodes drop, but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from catching up in time to tear into this belated holiday gift.