“This time will be different,” says YOU’s charming bookworm and literal lady killer Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) early on in season two. In some ways, he’s right. The series has undergone a lot of changes — it’s got a new network (Netflix), a new locale (Los Angeles), and a new leading lady (The Haunting of Hill House’s Victoria Pedretti) — but even so, the sexy-scary-funny thriller’s formula is starting to feel a little familiar.
Having fled to LA to escape Candace (Ambyr Childers) — the vengeful ex who returned from the “dead” in the season one finale — Joe is determined to live a solitary life. Unfortunately for him, he meets a beautiful young chef named Love (Pedretti) whose parents own an organic food market/book café with another very Los Angeles name, Anavrin (“Nirvana” spelled backwards). “Your shoes are clean but worn. You walk in a town where nobody walks,” he muses via voiceover, as he and Love have a meet-cute in the produce department. Soon, Joe is reevaluating his life of romantic celibacy and vowing to prove that he’s worthy of love, and Love. It’s all a little on the nose, but YOU has always worn its heart — beating and bloody — on its sleeve.
From there, the action — based on Hidden Bodies, the second book in author Caroline Kepnes’ YOU series — follows a blueprint viewers will recognize. Joe tracks Love’s life from afar when he’s not with her; he competes for his beloved’s attention with her needy, drug-addict brother, Forty (James Scully); and he finds himself looking out for a vulnerable young girl living in his apartment complex named Ellie (Jenna Ortega). The looming threat of exposure by Candace adds a new wrinkle, as does Joe’s venture into vigilante justice: He attempts to expose the exploits of a famous hipster-douchebag comedian (Chris D’Elia, in the season’s most pitch-perfect casting) with a thing for underage girls.
Badgley is still immensely watchable as Joe, who has the heart of a rom-com hero and the mind/lack of impulse control of a creepy stalker. The actor juggles the dual duties of on-screen performance and voiceover narration with unrelenting charm. Pedretti’s Love is feistier, more independent, and definitely more damaged than Joe’s season one obsession, Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), while Gotham’s Robin Lord Taylor makes a welcome appearance as a laid-back hacker who becomes Joe’s unlikely confidante.
Much of the new season is fun, and showrunners Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble nod to YOU’s more ridiculous tendencies by slipping in jokes at the show’s expense. “We had a date with destiny,” Joe intones in one voiceover, before adding wryly, “I’m reading too much Chandler.” Forty – who is developing a screenplay based on Beck’s posthumous book of stories — defends his depiction of her in the script (while simultaneously trolling season 1): “Beck was real. She humps a pillow multiple times!” And the writers even manage to transform the principle of Chekhov’s gun into… Chekhov’s Roomba.
But the ongoing narrative fake-outs are starting to feel tiresome; I stopped counting after Joe narrowly escaped discovery and/or grievous bodily harm for the sixth time. And Joe’s existential crisis — “Has Candace been right all along? Have I just been refusing to face who I really am?” — is increasingly hard to take seriously as the number of bodies in his wake continues to rise. There’s a reference to Dexter about midway through the season, which only serves to highlight the problem: Dexter Morgan knew he was a monster and tried to control it, while Joe Goldberg has now spent two seasons acting like a monster and trying to convince himself he isn’t one. (And Dexter, it should be noted, only had two great seasons — out of seven.)
With two more books in the YOU series on the way, Netflix is unlikely to wrap up Joe’s story with season two. The finale delivers a twist that lands somewhere between clever and too clever by half, and it sets up another season in its final moments. Maybe Kepnes and the writers will find new ways to evolve Joe’s character beyond the hapless-yet-homicidal romantic we’ve seen so far. “You can’t save someone from themselves,” Joe tells us in the finale. Let’s hope the same thing isn’t also true about YOU. Grade: B
YOU season 2 premieres Thursday, Dec. 26 on Netflix.