“You” began by reversing the equation of Golden Age TV dramas. And three seasons in, its act is getting tired.
The show, starring Penn Badgley as Joe, a stalker and killer to whose internal monologue we have access, is difficult to compare to series like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” but for one particular. Those shows, in exploring central characters who did monstrous things, ended up with fan bases who rooted for the bad guy. On “You,” the viewer is asked first to root for the bad guy, and, in doing so, then to get to know him.
This has been a winning formula for a show that, after its cancellation on Lifetime, thrived on Netflix; the streamer has announced its renewal for a fourth season ahead of the launch of its third. And yet the show feels creatively depleted. The show has always played off its title in two ways: Served us Joe’s thoughts about the “You” he’s pursuing and shown us a warped version of ourselves in its depiction of Instagram-ready milieus. (The first season was set in fashionably literary New York, the second in louche and Erewhon-y Los Angeles, and the third in influencer-gutted NorCal Eden.) What the show can at times lack in precision it makes up for in sheer tonnage of mocking reference: The show is “You” because it’s committed to showing an audience their interests, and themselves.
It’s that aspect of the show that’s grown to demand more and more of viewers’ attention as the endless parade of carnage has dulled in impact. Starting the season in a new place allows it new avenues for social satire. But it can feel, too, like the show is accommodating the fact that starting off with an incorrigible sociopath allows you to up the body count but not, really, to develop a character. Changing the place allows for novelty — and for new justifications why contemporary life might just push a person to murder. But Badgley’s Joe still thinks about most situations in the same, broken way. “You” has shown a great ability to change up its situation. What it lacks is agility within its protagonist, and the show increasingly feels stuck.
Joe now operates as he always has, constantly scrambling for advantage, or for sheer animal pleasure. Married to and raising a child with the impulsive Love (Victoria Pedretti), Joe is constantly on the hunt for more, or covering his tracks. He sees women as vectors for pleasure and good company but will hurt or kill them in attempting to keep them his. Joe and Love share a willingness to do anything in pursuit of affection, but Joe’s version of that is deeply calculated, while Love’s lashings-out carry in their wake severe consequences for locals who cross her, or threaten her marriage.
These violent outbursts, which carry with them a body count, are integrated almost too seamlessly into a story about performing domestic perfection. In the first two seasons, the show’s impulses towards social satire shielded Joe: In this universe, he is the least outré person in any conversation, which allows him to escape suspicion. And the deck was stacked for viewers at home, as well, as Joe is more likable than the snobs, users, and oddballs he encountered. But this season’s gestures towards murder as a way of life — the couple, for instance, speaks in veiled terms about a disagreement over a dead body in their couple’s therapy session — feel affected and airless. We already know that neither Joe nor Love feel any meaningful sense of shame, and that they lack what we might call consciences. Their fights, then, tend to come down to questions of pragmatics, or of taste: Love killing that person was a bad choice not because murder is a bad thing to do but because it will be a real hassle to clean up, and hasn’t she done enough violence lately?
The attempt to treat Joe and Love’s interior lives, and their interactions, with serious consideration feels like a challenge even a better show couldn’t overcome. To wit: The revelation that Joe feels a version of postpartum depression — feeling alienated from his son and isolated from his own emotions — would most crisply land with an audience that believes Joe to be a person capable of emotions greater than self-interest. There’s no ambiguity on this score, simply a vacillation between mostly depicting him as cold-blooded and occasionally tossing in a gesture towards feeling lonely in the suburbs because that’s where this season is set.
Similarly, the show’s plot increasingly positions the world around Joe as harmful and malicious in its own way. Joe and Love’s victims, in this new season, include a vaccine skeptic whose reluctance to get his family inoculated against measles results in Joe and Love’s infant son getting infected. From this viewer’s vantage point, their anger (if not its violent expression) is understandable — but the show doesn’t seem to be playing fair. In three seasons, we’ve moved from Joe hunting for and taking down vulnerable women to his working with his wife to redress social wrongs. What the show had been up to, eliciting our sympathy for a craven abuser of women by placing him against familiar backdrops, was crude, but it had a certain complication. Plopping him into a new situation and declaring he’s a somewhat compromised good guy looking out for his family strains credulity, and interest.
“You” is in some ways a victim of its success: The first, toxically compelling season introduced a figure of evil and attempted to make him both fearsome and attractive. It’s a balance that the show couldn’t credibly maintain, and so we get Joe grappling with his feelings about parenthood, or working to support his wife in her righteous missions of vengeance. More and more, the show seems to be saying, Joe’s struggles are just a slightly amped-up version of the viewer’s own. He’s “You.” But there’s too much grotesque violence in the show’s past for us to relate to him, or to take the show on its own terms. “You” remains discursively watchable for its mercenary willingness to plow through story and lard on details in setting. But in pushing not just to humanize but vindicate a character whose monstrousness was his whole point, “You” has lost the plot.
“You” Season 3 premieres Friday, Oct. 15, on Netflix.