In its first season, “You” was more interesting as state-of-the-industry case-study than as television. A semi-satirical stalker drama whose ability to compel coexisted with certain deep flaws, “You” failed to catch on as a Lifetime series and seemed destined for a short life — up until it was, in its second run on Netflix, a zeitgeist hit (according to Netflix’s own telling). Picked up by the streamer, the show that failed to catch fire on cable begins its second season as among the TV world’s most-hyped series.
It’s good news for those who turned “You” into a Netflix smash — and bad news for skeptics — that the show, in its second outing, is itself but more so. The first season’s story depicted Joe (Penn Badgley) pursuing and ultimately killing the object of his twisted affection (Elizabeth Lail); now, having assumed a new identity and transplanted himself to Los Angeles to evade the consequences of his broken view of love, he meets a new obsession, unsubtly named, well, Love. As played by Victoria Pedretti of “The Haunting of Hill House,” Love is an amped-up version of Beck — with yet more insecurities easily exploited and with what had, in Beck, been a low-key willingness to indulge and one-up Joe’s craziness now expressing itself in full and vibrant flower.
In short, it’s a new city, but a similar template: Joe has found a new person to serve as the staging-ground for his toxic ideas of “protection.” But in amping up that would-be lover’s interest in Joe — to the degree that, rather than needing to lure her in, Joe needs at first to keep her at arms’ length — a central problem of the show only deepens. In its first season, Joe (as represented in his voice-overs and as seen in his day-to-day life) was a basically likable person whose most toxic inner life only expressed itself in sparky flashes of rage. The character made sense only in discrete moments: The nice Joe and the evil one both made sense, but neither showed even a shade of the other. That problem continues and deepens, as ongoing crises with Love’s brother (James Scully) and with a grody celebrity in his orbit (Chris D’Elia) demand our sympathy and deep identification with a man we know has killed women before and will likely do again.
That’s not an impossible ask, but it demands more awareness of quite how big the ask is than “You” evinces; it’s as though the show forgets Joe’s other side whenever one of the two is being displayed onscreen. And, placing Joe in a new milieu — wellness-addicted Los Angeles, whose peculiarities the show skewers with less acuity than it pinned down the vanities of New York’s late-2010s sad young literary scene in season 1 — its increasing demands for our sympathy for this catfish-out-of-water grow ever more out-of-whack. He fit in among self-styled literary types in New York, and does not among Moon Juice-drinking Angelenos, making him seem… well, almost poignant. Perhaps the intent is to shock us into awareness of quite how rotten is this fellow for whom we feel so much, but that’s a magic trick that could really only work once. By the time this new season ends, setting up a third mad pursuit of a woman to seduce and destroy, viewers could be forgiven for feeling a bit tired of being addressed by an ever-less-charming killer, one who’s become tiresome company.