If you’re only half paying attention to the second season of Netflix’s “You,” you might think it was like every other romantic comedy-drama on TV about pretty people doing pretty things. A handsome nice guy from New York, nursing a broken heart, moves to Los Angeles determined not to look for love again, only of course to find it. In a romcom twist, the woman is even named Love.
And then the killing starts.
That nice guy, Joe (Penn Badgley), is actually a deadly stalker who left New York because he killed the object of his affections and several other people. And, after he takes up with this new life (and a new identity), it seems inevitable he’ll do it again.
The queasy brilliance of “You,” which premiered last week on Netflix (its new home after premiering its first season on Lifetime), is that while we see Joe do all these bad things, we see them through his deluded, self-rationalizing perspective. In voiceover narration, he really is that hero in the romcom, the nice guy looking for Ms. Right. One of the many things “You” gets right is that if you scratch the surface of a self-proclaimed “nice guy,” what you often find underneath the veneer can be pretty toxic. As someone says to Joe, “You act nice, because you aren’t.”
The disconnect works so well in “You” because Badgley is genuinely, unsettlingly charming as Joe (now going under the name of Will in L.A.), a handsome, floppy-haired millennial with a friendly smile and sincere manners. (It’s so, so satisfying in one episode when someone at a party mistakes him for John Mayer.)
Joe has fled to California to stay ahead of his many crimes in New York, as well as hide from another ex-girlfriend (Ambyr Childers) who sees him for who he really is. Settling into a new life as “Will,” Joe gets a job at an organic grocery story and, of course, meets Love (Victoria Pedretti), a produce buyer at the store. There seems to be an instant chemistry, despite Joe’s protestations that he doesn’t want to get involved. It’s only later that we find out how carefully Joe has orchestrated this supposed ‘meet-cute,” and the lengths he’ll go to keep the story going.
One of the surprises of Season 2 is how often Joe is caught off guard, surrounded by stronger and more interesting women that understand more about him that he’d like. While Love may seem like a typical “Cool Girl” type, Pedretti’s performance reveals her to be much tougher than expect, a true match for Joe’s predatory schemes.
My one concern about the show is that it will turn into a "Dexter"-type show, about a bad guy dealing with even worse people. Season 2 has its share of loathsome guys, including Chris D'Elia as a famous comedian who preys on underage girls. But maybe that's the point -- that sociopaths like Joe can rationalize their own bad behavior by telling themselves that there are those even worse than them.
“You” is a soapy, glossy show with a lot more on its mind that it might initially appear. While the subject matter will make a definite write-off for some viewers, others will stay tuned, hoping that Joe finally gets the unhappy ending he deserves.
Also on streaming: Amazon has a couple of new stand-up specials premiering Friday to start 2020 off on a cheerful note. Although Ilana Glazer's special is called "The Planet is Burning," so maybe not so cheerful? Jayde May also has a special coming on Friday, and Russell Peters and Rob Delaney have new specials premiering on Jan. 17.