In our risk-averse, deeply fearful age, the idea of one of the most popular shows on any streaming service being a black comedy about a serial killer who has an unfortunate penchant for murdering the women he falls in love with might be something of a tough sell. But the bloody exploits of Joe Goldberg, a bookstore worker-turned-university-professor, who has so far terrorized the denizens of New York, California and London, have run to four immensely popular seasons, with a likely fifth and final installment in the next year or two.
Not bad for a series that — intentionally or otherwise — treads a fine line between hilarity and horror, its essential ridiculousness jostling against its near-nightmarish central conceit.
When the first season of You appeared in 2018, its mixture of playfulness and drama was almost intoxicating in its originality. Joe, the protagonist, as played by Gossip Girl alumnus Penn Badgley, was a good-looking, almost bashful presence, whose voiceover served to make viewers complicit in his murderous exploits. Yet his obsessive stalking of the would-be object of his affection, the absurdly named Guinevere Beck, instantly alerted the audience that this man was a miscreant. As his actions became more and more extreme, viewers could only be amused by the fact that Goldberg worked in perhaps the only rare bookstore in Manhattan that boasted a handy basement dungeon in which his victims might be imprisoned. Not for nothing was the final episode of the season called “Bluebeard’s Castle.”
You is not a show in which there is any serious attempt at social realism. Its portrayal of London in the current season is especially egregious. Goldberg, calling himself Jonathan Moore, is now a university professor — of course — who has somehow amassed enough money to live in a suitably smart house in one of the city’s most expensive and exclusive enclaves. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about British academia is aware that the average thirty-something academic is barely earning enough to rent a small apartment in a pre-gentrification neighborhood. It’s an absurd fantasy, serving as a kind of Talented Mr. Ripley for a generation that has grown up on The OC and Sex and the City.
Do we like a man who mainly preys on women? We do not. Yet Badgley’s slyly sympathetic presentation of a truly appalling antihero makes him compelling to watch, even as his actions become more and more dreadful. It is not a performance (or a show) that has so far bothered the voters of the Emmys or the Golden Globes. But in its own eye-popping way, it’s one of the most ludicrously enjoyable lead turns in anything on television at the moment.
Goldberg-Moore, or whatever his latest pseudonym is, remains a very contemporary kind of serial killer. He’s thoroughly in touch with his inner Hannibal Lecter, but also the sort of sensitive, soulful man who would make you a falafel and quinoa salad, serenade you on an acoustic guitar with a (self-penned) love song and write you awful poetry, even as he stalks you with murderous determination.
To describe You as a guilty pleasure is to damn it with faint praise. The first half of its new season ended with a jaw-dropping twist, which is all the more outlandish for its shameless lift from a cult nineties film (to name it would amount to a spoiler), and the straight-faced larceny is somehow of a piece with the rest of the show. It shouldn’t work — and at times it very nearly doesn’t — but it remains essential, addictive, silly viewing. While we are waiting for Succession to return, the murderous mayhem of You continues to pass the time very amusingly.