Stepping into a chocolate brown ranch-style home, Penn Badgley’s broody Joe Goldberg wanders through a pool party being thrown on a Tuesday afternoon, exasperated. Inside are hipsters lazing on unicorn floats, several men in Borat swimsuits and a reporter who’s chasing down a Jared Padalecki rumor.
Toto, we’re not in Manhattan anymore.
When Season 2 of Warner Bros. thriller series “You” premieres on Dec. 26, the bookstore manager and sociopathic stalker played by Badgley will be devoid of his New York City backdrop and its familiar first-season faces, and plopped into a new home in Los Angeles. The show itself has similarly found a new abode, becoming a wholly Netflix original after a surprise second wind on the streamer capped a disappointing freshman year on Lifetime, its original network.
It’s a journey unique to this era of entertainment, one in which a show that is largely ignored on linear TV goes on to find its people online. After quietly drawing in an average of 612,000 viewers per episode last fall on basic cable, the series picked up steam at its off-network streaming home at Netflix, prompting the company to announce that 40 million users had watched at least 70% of an episode.
The figure drew skepticism about the popularity of “You,” which is produced by Berlanti Productions, Man Sewing Dinosaur and Alloy Entertainment in association with Warner Horizon Scripted Television. (Who among us hasn’t seen three-quarters of a show one time?) Now, Variety has exclusively learned that 43 million households completed all of Season 1 of “You” on Netflix, a curious win for a platform that previously said “No, thanks” to the show.
Brought to life by showrunner Sera Gamble and prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti, “You” is based on Caroline Kepnes’ book of the same name (Season 2 is inspired by the sequel, “Hidden Bodies”), threading the story of an obsessive young man whose pursuit of love takes him to sinister places. Last season saw Joe creeping on social media to follow and woo aspiring writer Beck (Elizabeth Lail) before his idealized vision of her fell apart; the season finale ended with the return of Candace (Ambyr Childers), an ex-girlfriend whom some were beginning to suspect Joe had killed.
“The idea [is] that you have this little jewel box of a romantic comedy structure, and you tell this very dark, horrific story within that structure,” says Gamble. “The first thing we all said to each other when we sat down to work on Season 2 was, ‘We’re never going to replicate the simplicity of the Season 1 story, and we shouldn’t try.’ We shouldn’t try to capture the same feeling. We shouldn’t create the next Beck. We should go into this thinking about how to retain the spirit of Joe’s story but really take the plot in new directions.”
If the first season felt like a fun-house-mirror romance, the second feels part bloody thriller, part dark satire. It begins with Joe laying low in L.A., adapting to the city’s quirks as he becomes consumed with a new woman (Love Quinn, played by Victoria Pedretti). The show’s writers also take the time to lovingly skewer L.A.-isms — from Anavrin, a fictional boutique grocery store with a read-it-backward name (à la Erewhon), to transplants who underestimate everything about Southern California, including how quickly it can inflict a sunburn. (“I went to the Valley for you,” a character complains, at one point, to a hostage.)
“For me, playing Joe [in L.A.] was even more isolating because there was literally more space, so it’s almost like the void that he stares into represents the void in himself that he’s terrified of,” says Badgley. “It maybe became more oppressive. He is a little bit of an oppressive character, if not extremely, and there’s something I experience of that when playing him. So just privately, the weekends were refuge, because I was able to live in L.A. like a normal human.”
Fans of Joe — and there are many — will again be challenged this season to defend a character who has been known to commit murder, albeit in the name of love.
“Joe does all these things, and it’s very much a question at the root of the second season, which is: Is Joe a bad person who does good things, or is he a good person who does bad things?” says Berlanti. “I think how people perceive that is very much dependent on how romantic they are as people. Because a lot of the good stuff he’s doing is in the interest of love, and so it probably says a lot about society, about how much we over-romanticize things, that we’re so programmed to look past the fact that this guy’s a stalker.”
Of course, part of the allure of “You” is Badgley, the “Gossip Girl” alum able to charm viewers even as his behavior veers steadily into Not OK territory, despite his rationalizations. “The fascinating thing was that Joe’s character, given all his … flaws, one could call them, tested higher than any character we’ve ever tested, which is just insane to me,” says Berlanti.
Like its storyline, the show’s path to viewers’ TV screens was twisty. Berlanti and Gamble pitched and sold “You” to Showtime in 2015, developing the script there for about a year. But the premium cabler wanted to go in a different direction (“which sometimes happens in development,” says Gamble gamely), and amicably parted ways with the creative duo.
Fortunately, Lifetime ordered “You” straight to series. That was “fantastic, but always comes with its own stressors,” says Berlanti, “because you don’t really have a pilot to know if something’s working or not.” It would take a while longer before the show made it to air, as the basic cable network calculated the right window for its debut.
Meanwhile, Netflix, much like Joe, began to fix a covetous eye on its object of desire. “We had read it and really loved the first script, and really believed in the vision of Greg and Sera,” says Netflix’s head of international non-English originals, Bela Bajaria, who at the time was vice president of content. So she called Warner Bros. “We would’ve done it as an original back then, because we really loved that script, [but] they’d already sold it to Lifetime.”
The plot twist is that prior to Bajaria joining Netflix, the company had already declined the project — twice. Netflix passed on the pitch for “You” before it headed to Showtime, and then passed on it again after Showtime and the show’s creators parted ways.
So Bajaria instead acquired the program’s Season 1 domestic off-network rights and international first-run rights, similar to its deal for Berlanti’s CW show “Riverdale.” (Those licensing dollars helped to pad out the show’s first-season budget.)
Years after its inception, “You” premiered on Lifetime in September 2018. And the ratings were, as Berlanti gently puts it, “lackluster.” (The show ultimately averaged 1.1 million viewers per episode after seven days of delayed viewing.) Lifetime, which initially had enough faith in the show to renew it for a second season before the first one even premiered, ultimately backed away from another round. A source familiar with the situation tells Variety that at that point it no longer made financial sense for Lifetime to continue with another season.
When Lifetime decided not to move forward with the series, Netflix — now bullish on the show — stepped in to pick up Season 2, despite not having yet introduced the program to its subscribers.
“You” hit the service the day after Christmas. Berlanti didn’t have any hopes for the first season to do any better on Netflix than it had on cable, and then the congratulatory emails started flying into his inbox. They were from friends feting him on his great “new” show.
“It was one of those ones where we felt a little bit, by the end, [like] we were crazy people for believing in this thing, so it was very gratifying to finally, somewhere, find an appropriate audience,” recalls Berlanti.
It performed so well for Netflix that the company then indulged in its rare disclosure of viewership data.
“I was so shocked by that number. … I just had never seen a number like that before,” Gamble says, though she prefers to focus on the material and not the ratings. “The mind game I play with myself is I just remind myself [that] when I started as a writer, I was in theater, and theaters have 99 seats, and I was really excited when they were all full. [Any] TV show on the air right now has more viewers than I started with. So there’s something that would feel really ungrateful about micromanaging the numbers.”
The massive leap in viewership is perhaps a result of the source material’s alignment with a host platform known for its binge model. Berlanti, who calls Kepnes’ novel “binge-able,” says that he felt the pressure and desire to reproduce that element, and wasn’t sure if there would be enough momentum to keep viewers hooked to a weekly format.
“Now when we go in and pitch people on a second season, when a show is on the bubble, we remind them of the experience we had with ‘You,’” says Berlanti, taking a moment to praise The CW for allowing “Riverdale” and “All-American” time to gain an audience on the network. “I think anybody who’s in the buying business of shows is going to have to have a longer-term level of patience.”