By Jo Berry
A surprise hit at the beginning of 2019 thanks to online word of mouth, the first season of You introduced us to handsome New Yorker Joe Goldberg (Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley), the manager of a vintage bookstore.
Joe seemed like a nice, intelligent guy – until we saw him stalking (both in person and on social media) NYU student Guinevere Beck. His obsession with her (which he imagined as true love) led to him sinisterly ‘removing’ any obstacles in the path of their romance, including her closest friend, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock in Central Park.
And then there was the matter of the plexiglass human-sized cage Joe had concealed in the basement. Do you still think he’s sexy? (Don’t answer that – one of the problems, or successes, of You, depending on your point of view, is that Badgley’s strangely appealing performance makes Joe’s actions seem almost excusable).
Adapted from the novel by Caroline Kepnes, the first season of this dark thriller was a binge-watcher’s dream, thanks to a madly addictive plot that made viewers mouth ‘WTF?’ at the screen a lot. Joe’s deadly deeds didn’t catch up with him at the end, so if you weren’t that bothered that he killed Beck and framed therapist Doctor Nicky for her murder, you should be on board for a second 10-episode helping (loosely based on Kepnes’ sequel, Hidden Bodies).
Joe – now going by the name Will Bettelheim, and you’ll find out soon enough what has happened to the real Will – has relocated to LA to escape his demons, various corpses, and the return of the ex he thought was dead, Candace (Ambyr Childers).
He gets a job at a grocery/book store named Anavrin (nirvana spelled backwards, tee hee) owned by the wealthy Quinn family and run by Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti) and her troubled brother Forty (James Scully). Joe/Will is determined to start afresh and not repeat the mistakes he made with Beck, but it’s not long before he falls for Love and his obsessive nature rears its murderous head once more.
While the setting may have changed, some things here are familiar. In the first season, Joe’s more human side was demonstrated in his protective relationship with young neighbour Paco, and here he befriends precocious teen Ellie (Jenna Ortega), who lives with her older sister Delilah (Carmela Zumbado) in Joe’s apartment complex.
And his path to true love this time is not blocked by an obnoxious best friend, but by an obnoxious brother in the form of Forty, a drug addict and wannabe filmmaker (it’s Hollywood, remember) who relies on Love for everything – it becomes clear why once we meet their horrendous parents later in the season (Saffron Burrows, as their mom, will have you gasping with laughter as she candidly chats about one of the more intimate side effects of menopause).
Joe’s bookish snobbery – one of the joys of Badgley’s voice over from the first season – is in full flow here, too, his interior monologue smirking at the shallow California residents, their juice cleanses, celebrity obsessions and food fads, easy targets though they are. We see LA through his eyes, and it’s enough of a turn-off that you wonder whether the Los Angeles tourist board will sue show runner Sera Gamble for her bitingly funny but not exactly favourable depiction of the city.
There are differences too, some more successful than others. One big improvement on the first season is Pedretti’s Love, who is a far more well-rounded, likeable and interesting character than Beck (RIP) ever was. She’s a match for Joe in many ways, and their relationship is believable even in a show where we see everything from Joe’s skewed perspective. It says a lot about both Badgley and Pedretti’s performances that, by mid-season, you’ll actually hope these two crazy kids will make it work.
The re-appearance of Candace adds an interesting element, too. While Joe believes she is solely bent on revenge, flashbacks to the dramatic end of their relationship show just how badly served women are by the justice system and give her previously one-note character some motivation and heart when she reappears in Joe’s life.
Less notable is a MeToo subplot involving Delilah that feels like it’s ticking boxes, some predictable flashbacks of Joe’s childhood that slow things down, and a twist in episode eight that takes the bonkers plot to a whole new level of oddness that some viewers may find too ridiculous to swallow.
Despite these faults, this season of You retains much of what made it a must-see first time around. Thanks to a witty script and Badgley’s wide-eyed, sharp performance, it is still an enjoyably trashy serial killer thriller filled with twists and turns that is 2020’s first guilty pleasure.
You season 2 launches on Boxing Day (Thursday, December 26) on Netflix