When the first season dropped for the now sensational Netflix original, You, I skipped over the title and brushed the series off as another corporate gimmick. Truly, this was not one of my finest moments. I'll admit it: without having even seen the show apart from some isolated frames and a number of plot snippets my old roommate would share with me as she binged the show, I denounced the series as a kitschy cash grab. A cheaper and tackier version of such modern psycho-thrillers as Gone Girl and Dark Intentions. And as true as that assumption may or may not have been, I should have at least given the series a taste before hanging it out to dry.
So through 2018 and 2019, while You was currying up a nice fan following and launching its second season into production, I steered clear of the show and smugly brushed it off as Netflix riding the wave of Gillian Flynn in the shallowest of fashions. Again, shame on me. But before we go leaping to conclusions about my legitimacy as an A&E journalist, please consider the broader premise of the series, and how it might've sounded to someone casually flipping through the hundreds of titles that Netflix has to offer.
A voiceover-driven drama where a white, male serial killer stalks and murders a host of mostly female victims, conveniently slipping out of danger until the series gets the axe? Yeah, I'll pass. Dexter, at least, had its killer acknowledge and try to combat his murderous psychopathy. But this "Joe Goldberg" I've been hearing so much about seems to think he's doing his victims a favor. Next, please.
However, in the wake of my well documented post-Stranger Things 3 trauma, I went out on the hunt for a new, wildly over-the-top and twisted series to fill the void and take my mind off of a certain tragic scumbag teen. Sitcoms and slice of life pieces may have provided a momentary distraction, but they weren't cutting it for me in the long term. As much as I love Schitt's Creek, I needed something heavier and all-engrossing to leverage me out of my stupid, mullet-wearing pit of despair.
Then New Year's rounded the corner and lo and behold: You had returned to the spotlight page, boasting a darker, more intricate, and bloodier second season to whet the palate of any television masochist.
And yet again, I easily skipped over the show. In fact, I would have missed it entirely, but my sister was so excited to watch the second season and so insistent that I be there to divine the madness with her that she was willing to rewatch the entire first season together.
That's right. In less than four days, my sister and I clocked in over twenty hours of binge watching to consume the complete first and second season of a show that once upon a time I couldn't be bothered to even hover over.
"And what's the verdict?," you may ask, tired of me drawing this publication out in typical asshole fashion.
Let's start with season one.
Season 1: A Judgement Long Overdue
First of all, I wasn't completely off the mark with my initial assessment of the show. Yes, I was far too harsh on the series and far too eager to pass judgement, but in many ways You season 1 is exactly what it appeared to be from afar: a messier imitation of modern gender-driven psycho-dramas, the principal template being Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. The pilot's opening monologue alone, which sees Joe stalk and analyze a young woman as she drifts into his bookstore, is an unabashed echo of Flynn's own opening voice over.
However, to give the show its due credit, this is how most television series are pitched and crafted for their first seasons. The original treatments or show bibles that writers create to pitch their idea for a series will list 'comps,' or other successful properties from which they draw strong inspiration in structure, style, or subject matter, to make the financial gamble for executives deciding whether or not to fund their show seem far less risky. The thought process is that if Gillian Flynn's property can gain such wide critical and financial success, then a series comparable in many capacities should also have some guarantee of doing well itself.
In fact, if You hadn't been so married to the format and themes of Flynn's highly successful thriller, then the chances of the series being greenlit and so readily backed by Netflix would have been far slimmer. So the striking similarities between the first few episodes of the series, and especially the pilot, to other titles is something that I can easily accept.
That being said, the first season of this show isn't nearly as brilliant as the spectacular thrillers that its miming. It's shaky, and it pads the brilliance and sharpness of the cinematic psycho-thriller with more sensational arcs of interpersonal drama, gags, and cliffhangers that are typical of popular dramatic television.
It toys with important discussion of gender and toxicity in our contemporary social situation, but it's bogged down by the inconsistency of its acting and dialogue. Every aspect of the show is ridged with these sharp highs and lows.
Penn Badgley gives an authentically creepy and fairly consistent performance as the show's psychotic protagonist. Unfortunately, other members of the cast prove not nearly as steady in their maneuvering of their chosen social archetypes.
In all fairness, though, Badgely is physically perfect for the role of a charming and potentially vulnerable killer. Tall, dark, and handsome? Yes. But also gaunt even in the best of lighting with eyes that can easily project insanity.
I'll put it this way: If I had just had my arm amputated and Joe Goldberg walked into a room, I would ask him if he was alright. Take that as you will. For me, it's a sign that the cast and crew were spot on in their casting choice of a character who is essentially the driving force of the entire series.
So good job and congratulations in that area, but what let's circle back to the fundamentals. How's the script?
To put it bluntly, the writing ranges from decent to Riverdale. Sometimes solid, yet frequently cheesy with a dash of pretentious. Let's just say that if you're looking for some masterful or brilliant inspection into the machinations of a psychopath as he runs amok in the urban playground of New York, you will more than likely end up unsatisfied with the shakiness of this navigation into such difficult territory.
Like I said, it's a cheaper spin-off of Flynn-esque ideas. It's shallower, less intelligent, and summarily more watered down, but my God does it have the potential for fun.
This is the show's major saving grace: while not intellectually brilliant or seamlessly performed, it's always entertaining. The convolution of he-said-she-said, infidelity, obsession, serial killing, and soap operatic drama between this cast of asshole characters is an easy guilty pleasure.
Add to that the fact that the cinematography of the series sails easily above average, and toss in Joe's gleefully ironic, manic voiceovers of these ridiculous double-crossings, and you have a show with the potential to be a binge goldmine.
If only the writers would really embrace the somehow dorky, playful, and terrifyingly confused fun of the violent madness that rules the series, emphasizing the chuckle-inducing mania of this ridiculous show and it's equally ridiculous protagonist rather than leaning so heavily into its Flynn-sequel heaviness, than this series would be an absolute blast to watch.
And what do you know? That brings us right into the ballpark of season two, the funner, more ridiculous, and crazier sequel to a decent but unsteady series that hadn't yet gotten its footing.
Season 2: Embracing the Madness
I'm not going to lie. I loved season 2 of this show.
Not 'loved' as in it was brilliant and spoke to me on a uniquely cerebral level. Nope. This show has finally found out for itself that it's not that kind of series. Instead, this show swung back into the spotlight page with fake-outs, over-the-top twists, and enough sensationalism to carry me through what otherwise would have been an agonizing eleventh through twentieth hour of content.
To clarify, I'm by no means saying that this show is brainless or out and out stupid.
It's absurd, sure, but if anything I would say its self-awareness over its own absurdity gives the series ample opportunity to be that much more clever, witty, and playful than ever before. Prepare for a new and improved Joe, who in spite of his murderous habits ends up being something of a helpless, dorky spaz a good chunk of the time, a psychotic fish out of water in the pc, gluten-free, ladder-climbing roller coaster that is downtown LA.
Gone are the days of an oppressively weighty and burdensome atmosphere carried over from the initial inspirations of the show. We've blossomed out of Flynn and landed closer to a unique, cheeky, and deliciously twisted little psycho-drama of our own.
Everything about the second season, in my humble opinion, is an improvement.
Better writing. Better acting. Better actors. A more complex and engaging network of plots that acknowledges and pokes fun at its own convolution. A more interesting character arc for what could otherwise be a one-dimensional sociopathic protagonist.
The only exception to this collective glow up would be the fact that the relationship between Joe and his current obsession, Love Quinn, isn't substantiated with the same level of intimate moments just between the two of them as was established between Joe and Beck in season 1.
Of course, to keep things in perspective, the close and frightening connection between Joe and Beck was practically the entire crux of the first season, while the second is stuffed and weaved together with enough ample plot to move beyond Joe's romantic obsessions. Still, I wish that there could have been a few more isolated, romantic moments just between Joe and Love, to really sell their desperate attachment to one another, aside from all of the scenes that were packed in a hurry into the first episode.
Irregardless, I'll wrap up this extraneous review with a final confession.
While I originally judged and mouthed off You as nothing but a cheap mimic of far better shows and films about psychopathy, I have since found that You is not only exactly that, but so much more. It is not only violence and murder at its most absurd, but at its most enjoyable.
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