Grace Twomey ’23 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
On Dec 26th, 2019, Netflix released the second season of the widely popular and critically acclaimed show, You. Although its addition to Netflix saw high viewership numbers, the show was originally a Lifetime series that had such low viewership numbers that the crew, cast, and audience alike were under the impression it was destined to be a one season wonder. In December 2018, Lifetime officially passed on the second season, allowing the show to become a Netflix Original. After seeing how popular it was on their streaming service (the first season had 43 million streams in its first month), Netflix executives welcomed the chance to take over in renewing it, extending a widely loved show, while also implementing a significant change in staff behind the scenes. Despite both seasons being based on books by Caroline Kepnes, the writing between Season 1 and Season 2 undergoes drastic changes that can leave lovers of the first season feeling unsatisfied.
The move from Lifetime to Netflix not only saw changes for You, but may also signify a larger shift for the future of television. The dramatic difference in viewership for the first season between Lifetime and Netflix demonstrates the large public shift from cable to streaming. Variety TV Critic Daniel D’Addario tweeted “I think ‘You’ flailing on Lifetime and being treated by the viewing public as a Netflix original is going to be remembered as a major turning point in […] the TV industry.” Often, cable is criticized for its lack of easy to binge content due to the standard release of one episode per week. However, some streaming services, such as Disney+ have been able to take this model and thrive. Viewership for shows like The Mandalorian demonstrate an increase each week as viewers return for more whereas Netflix shows often see a spike in viewership immediately after a show is released, followed by a steep decrease as audiences finish the show in a matter of weeks, or even days, ready to move on to the next thing. You experienced the shift from cable to streaming firsthand, and suffered the consequences.
One of the draws to You is undoubtedly the voiceover of Joe (Penn Badgley) that gives us an inside look into the mind of this killer as he rationalizes his actions, allowing the audience to do the same, drawing them further into the show and encouraging them to root for Joe. Season 2 also provided a deeper background into Joe’s childhood, offering further attempted rationalization for his current actions. However, the writing of Season 2 makes Joe’s actions seem less excusable. After moving to Los Angeles, Joe spends a fair amount of time criticizing everyone and everything around him, whereas during the first season he expressed a love for New York City and a few of its inhabitants besides his love interest of the moment.
However, this extreme pessimism was not the only thing making Joe seem more and more like the stalker he is. In addition to his own flashbacks, we also see flashbacks from the perspective of Candace (Ambyr Childers), his ex-girlfriend who followed him out to Los Angeles in an effort to get revenge after he attempted to bury her alive. By seeing flashbacks from a victim’s perspective, the audience is able to put themselves in Candace’s shoes, the shoes of someone being attacked by Joe, who is supposed to be the protagonist, which makes him much harder to sympathize with. Throughout the second season, Candace’s character is clearly written to fulfill the crazy ex-girlfriend stereotype as everyone around her becomes entranced with Joe, accusing her of lying about their past. Although viewers did witness acts of severe violence committed by Joe during the first season, they had been with him through the whole journey, hearing his thoughts through the voiceover, explaining why it was necessary for him to murder yet another of his love interest’s acquaintances. Whereas, Candace’s flashbacks in Season 2 do not provide Joe’s perspective, removing the chance for viewers to rationalize his actions and revealing him as the senseless killer he is.
These shifts take away from one of the main draws of You, the insight into what makes such a vile character seem so appealing. Joe begins to seem like an impossible character to root for. While there’s no way of knowing if this aspect could have been retained if You had stayed a Lifetime show, there’s certainly no doubt that Netflix’s writing team completely transformed the show. While Caroline Kepnes, the author of the books that inspired You, was involved in both seasons, as well as the creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, the additional writers listed for each episode have little overlap between seasons, with no writers working on more than two episodes of both individual seasons.
Penn Badgley himself, especially after the first season, had frequently expressed his hesitation at playing such a controversial character whose highly questionable actions have caused many fans to post their admiration for his character on social media. After the first season Badgley had replied to several fan tweets, explaining that Joe should not be an ideal date, telling a user by the name of Nobia Parker that they shouldn’t be swooning over Joe because “A: He is a murderer.” Badgley has also spoken about Joe’s demonstration of how far some individuals will go to apologize for, or even romanticize, negative behavior exhibited by attractive white men.
The second season’s changes took this to an extreme, making it harder to find Joe’s actions romantic in any sense of the word and further revealing his true nature of just plain creepy. While this may be seen as a step in the right direction for the show’s morals, it changes the general premise, making Season 2 seem wildly different from viewers’ original beloved first season. Initial viewership for Season 2 was reported at over 54 million views within the first month, causing Netflix to renew the show for another season, set to release next year. It will certainly be interesting to see if Netflix continues in this new direction for Season 3.