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“You,” one of television’s more addictive treats, returns for a second season on Thursday. It has moved to a different shelf of the candy store — it’s now a Netflix series, after premiering on Lifetime — but it’s as tasty, and as bad for you, as ever.
The first season won a rabid following, and a lot of critical attention, for its clever fusion of the conventions of the romantic comedy with the conventions of the bluebeard serial-killer tale. As Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) — cute, courteous, literary and deranged — pursued his quest to be the perfect New York boyfriend, the bodies piled up, and the rom-com was shown to have been a horror story all along. The distance between the genres vanished.
It was a good trick, part of a long tradition, from Hammer Films to “Scream” to Jordan Peele, of using dark comedy to make audiences feel less guilty about enjoying homicidal suspense and bloodshed. And it was well timed as a cautionary #MeToo allegory: Joe’s ability to make psychopathic narcissism look like romantic sensitivity — and the eagerness of his victims to believe in it — was a perfect representation of the big-city dating hellscape.
But for all the attention devoted to the show’s extreme critique of the controlling mansplainer, and its biting depiction of millennial vacuousness, the real dramatic engine of “You” is simpler (and perhaps even more subversive). What’s really entertaining about it is the screwball comedy of watching poor Joe trying to keep all of his plates spinning — to stay one step ahead as his lies get harder to keep track of and his regretful but necessary killings become harder to cover up. The action is a Rube Goldberg-like maze, and Joe is the rat whose escape we can’t help rooting for.
Season 2 sticks to that pattern, though at a more leisurely pace and in sunnier surroundings. Fleeing the events of Season 1, Joe has crossed the country to Los Angeles, where he has assumed a new identity and taken a job at a precious gourmet market whose name is nirvana spelled backward. He has also found a new focus of obsession — a new You — in a fellow employee, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). (The name is a little on the nose, even for “You,” but it adds to the belletristic ambience — Joe, constantly beginning sentences with “Love, … ” sounds that much more like an Elizabethan poet.)
The new location allows the showrunner, Sera Gamble, and her staff to add Southern California stereotypes to the generational and class formulas that draw Joe’s scorn, and to throw the Hollywood melodrama into the genre blender along with the rom-com. There’s a touch of L.A. noir in the way Joe obtains his new identity (stolen from a con artist who’s entertainingly played by Robin Lord Taylor of “Gotham”), and in the latter stages of the season, Joe’s tangential involvement in a movie project becomes a canny symbol for the show itself. “It sounds like the most anti-feminist horror film in history,” he says when apprised of the plot, “which is saying a lot.”
(The prevalence of movie-industry talk also allows the writers to do a lot of taste signaling, and their taste is pretty good — the names of Sofia Coppola, Joaquin Phoenix, Kathryn Bigelow and David Fincher are among those dropped, along with several blind references to Robert Altman.)
The moviemaking plot, which kicks into gear around Episodes 7 and 8, is a godsend because some of the other ideas in the new season aren’t nearly as good. There’s a preponderance of flashbacks illustrating the childhood traumas that shaped Joe, and while you can see why they’re probably there — someone thought Joe needed “opening up” to keep us interested — they’re just not interesting.
What keeps us watching is Badgley’s delicate balancing act as Joe, synthesizing charm and bug-eyed creepiness and alarm while carrying much of the comic burden in the slightly stiff but yearning tone of his Harlequin-novel narration. It’s a performance that’s all on the surface. (The show’s conceit depends on Joe’s self-delusion, and the attempts to give him some emotional depth this season actually dull down the story.) But Badgley is impressively consistent, controlled and resourceful — he nearly always finds a way to make us smile.
And that’s crucial, because “You” doesn’t really exist outside of Joe’s point of view — he’s the only character that truly matters. As with everything in this most self-aware of series, that fact becomes comic grist: During a writing session for the movie-within-the-show, a young woman points out that the screenplay would be better if told from the female victim’s point of view. It may be good advice for the movie, but it would never work for “You.”