tv review

You Is the Best It’s Ever Been

A stalker drama can be fun, but it’s got nothing on the murder-romp possibilities of a serial killer Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Photo: Netflix

Netflix’s dark, stalker-narrated murder drama You has often been messy, and typically been compelling. Its lead character, Joe Goldberg, is a monster in the guise of a particularly thoughtful boyfriend, and while Penn Badgley’s perfect, rapturously obsessive performance is the driving force of the series, something about You has always made it seem like it’s tap-dancing over the story’s soft spots, trying to create the impression of momentum even when it’s staying in one place. Now returning for a third season, You is the best it’s ever been — every bit as dark and stinging and cheerfully willing to screw with its audience, but now outfitted with a glorious foil for Joe’s monstrousness.

Beyond Badgley’s unnerving, dark-eyed gaze, the most striking feature of You has always been the way it deploys internal monologue. Seen through Joe’s eyes, and narrated with an intimate second-person address, familiar tropes from romantic stories are defamiliarized and then reframed as nightmarish intrusions. (Is it romantic that he stole your notebook and has been carrying it around with him for weeks?) Television rarely screws with its audience the way You does; unreliable narrators are a challenge for screen storytelling, and few shows can pull it off, much less do it with You’s warped, twisted confidence.

For all the gripping performances, sly social observation, and the shifting, slippery complexity of You’s direct address to its viewers, the show’s weak point has always been its internal mechanics. It’s thrown lots of wrenches in the works, sure — flashes to Joe’s past, distracting neighbor children, hovering side characters who inevitably intrude. At least in the first season, though, and much of its second, You has been stuck with the fundamental simplicity of its basic idea: Joe likes a woman, he likes her a lot, he likes her too much, and then he likes her to death. Yes, there’s more to it. How will Joe lure his latest love object? Will his violent nature be revealed? Will she see through him? Will one of her friends find out and get killed to keep them quiet? How will it all get filtered through Joe’s perpetually returning childhood abandonment issues? Plus, the show is full of oddly soothing mechanical pleasures; it is competence porn for anyone who likes their serial killers to be calmly, pleasantly detail-oriented. It’s not that watching Joe identify, pursue, grow close to, and then kill another victim is boring. But the very intensity of his obsession turns it into a form of status quo, and inevitably creates a question: Will this rhythm ever change?

Season three has more than one significant innovation to the show’s previous formulae. The first is the show’s shift to yet another new setting. Season one was in New York, and was a send-up of Brooklyn-ish wealthy hipster culture; season two was in Los Angeles and had great fun poking at dippy wellness types. In season three, Joe has moved to Madre Linda, a fictional Bay Area suburb, and if Joe had contempt for the Williamsburg man buns and disdain for the organic produce of L.A., it’s nothing on the outright loathing he feels for the suburban, life-optimizing tech culture of Madre Linda. It’s the inescapable apps, and the fact that everyone’s gluten-free, and the worry about sustainability while maintaining enormous mansions that’ve been programmed for every imaginable kind of voice activation.

Even more, it’s the people. The best of them, the strongest new additions to the series, are Shalita Grant and Travis Van Winkle as Sherry and Carey Conrad, neighbors who essentially run the suburb, and who’ve optimized every last inch of their social, emotional, financial, and physical lives. Carey’s an entrepreneur who views the path to true enlightenment as accessible only by counting macros, and Sherry is an influencer in the mommy space who nearly has a stroke at the sight of her children eating real sugar. Together they are riotously funny and completely awful, but with them, You has dialed in something it hasn’t managed to attain through the observational eye of previous seasons. Joe sees Carey and Sherry and hates them so much he can barely maintain his composure, and while we are stuck inside his perspective as narrator, the portraits of Sherry and Carey are so detailed and attentive that they also become tender. There have been great characters before — RIP Peach Salinger — but Sherry and Carey are the first to occupy such a delightful space at the intersection of mockery, sincerity, and sadness.

The most important change for season three, though, is the thing that shifts the fundamental geometry of how the show works. In season three, Joe is not alone. He is still with Love Quinn, the woman he became entangled with in season two, played by a dynamic, masterful Victoria Pedretti. They are married, they have an infant, and best of all, Love is just as dark and violent as Joe, just as drawn to problem-solving by using extreme, irreversible, bloody devices. Suddenly, the one-way direction of the show’s momentum is a much more complicated two-body problem (and it does not take long for the body count to grow higher than two). Love is a foil for Joe, a mirror but also a nemesis, his love object, the mother of his child, and a constant reminder of his own flaws. A stalker drama can be fun, but it’s got nothing on the murder-romp possibilities of a serial killer Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where no one trusts anyone else but also someone needs to finish up the murdering in time to take over child-care duties.

You’s third season would be enjoyable enough on its own. The world of Madre Linda is well-populated and viciously drawn, and there are few-enough direct ties to the action of the previous seasons that it helps to remember what’s come before, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Without the previous seasons, you’d miss some important references to love objects of years past, and some of the drama of Love Quinn’s family would be hard to follow. What you’d really miss out on, though, is the particular pleasure of watching a television show in its third season find a new gear, with a willingness to throw out the old operating manual and force its characters into different configurations and challenges. You has already been renewed for a fourth season, and although it grows increasingly improbable that no one’s stopped Joe’s killing spree yet, it’s hard not to be at least a little pleased that he’ll still be out there, doing his thing.

You Is the Best It’s Ever Been