Film

L.A. Gory

Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, You, 2019. Season 2, episode 1. Joe Goldberg and Love Quinn (Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti).

UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the 1991 film L.A. Story was hands down the best satire of Los Angeles as told from the perspective of a man experiencing a possible psychotic break. Harris K. Telemacher—a TV meteorologist played by Steve Martin—is an egghead who loves Shakespeare but finds himself drowning in a sea of Angelenos who get furious in traffic, love colonics, order a “half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon,” and remain incapable of enjoying culture unless it happens to be the probiotic kind. He has two love interests: a woman with the unbelievably dumb name SanDeE*, who is into hippy-dippy woo-woo nonsense and dreams of being a spokesmodel, and a journalist. “I was deeply unhappy,” he admits in voice-over, “but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time.” Thirty minutes in, Telemacher begins to think that a talking freeway sign is offering him guidance on his personal life; he is convinced that the universe has a plan for him, and that his simultaneous pursuit of both the bimbo and the journalist has been endorsed by fate. “I thought of something Shakespeare said,” he deadpans: “‘Hey, life is pretty stupid, with a lot of hubbub to keep you busy, but really not amounting to much.’”

Enter stage left, the second season of Netflix’s serial-killer thriller You, a show that at first blush is pretty stupid, filled with hubbub, and not exerting itself in order to amount to much. Created by Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, and originally aired on the Lifetime channel, You began by examining the grimiest of the heterosexual rom-com’s many tropes, positioning its antihero as a self-styled good guy who saw stalking—on and offline—as a way to fast-track fate. Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley), a bookshop employee, spent the first season obsessed with a blonde writer named Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), whose mediocrity appeared at times to be an intentional lampoon of the kind of unseasoned, vacuous white women certain men hold up as flawless. Obviously, he eventually killed her. Some of You’s second-wind popularity sprang from its eminent, addictive streamability; some of it also came from the show’s curiously on-the-nose references to the New York literary scene, its jokes about Yaddo and The Believer finding new life among the cognoscenti of Media Twitter. Now and then, the show’s satire could be satisfying—digs about the vapidity of MFA students who prefer to post on Instagram; a character called Peach Salinger who clarifies “yes, that Salinger”—but mostly, You was brilliant nonsense, fast-paced and devoid of airtight logic. It did not necessarily warrant further episodes; how could one improve on such demented, featherbrained perfection?

The answer, per its writers, is by making it an L.A. story. The new season sees Joe fleeing to California, where he begins a new, “quiet” life as “Will.” He is an egghead who loves Dostoyevsky but finds himself drowning in a sea of Angelenos who celebrate “pescatarian bisexual week,” liberally quote Jonathan Gold, drink Moon Juice, and remain incapable of enjoying culture unless it happens to be the probiotic kind. He lands a job at a health food emporium whose name is Nirvana spelled backward, and is told that the position is “coveted, [because] all the casting directors shop here.” His boss, Forty (James Scully), says “old sport” à la Jay Gatsby roughly every thirty seconds, and his primary love interest—Forty’s twin, suggesting that their parents must be crazy about tennis—is called Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti). She is into hippy-dippy, woo-woo nonsense (unlike the other girl he dates briefly, who is an investigative journalist). Plus ça change: If jokes about LA mutate, they rarely deviate from the original formula. “Almost every film in which Los Angeles plays itself features a moment wherein it’s suggested to the audience that the movie is actually set in Hell,” David Ehrlich wrote for Reverse Shot, in a piece about L.A. Story. “Love has taken me to dark places,” Joe says, wincing in his opening monologue. “But Los Angeles has got to be as dark as it gets.” The show’s real descent into hell begins a little later in the episode, when it’s revealed that Joe has shipped his glass murder cage, in pieces, from New York to an LA storage facility called Lock of Fame Storage.

Greg Berlanti and Sera Gamble, You, 2019. Season 2. Love Quinn and Joe Goldberg (Victoria Pedretti and Penn Badgley).

Joe is deeply unhinged but doesn’t know it because he’s so optimistic all the time. He looks for signs, and if they don’t manifest, he either hallucinates them, or carves them out with a claw hammer. The show’s best gag is the dissonance between Joe’s self-image and his serial killing: he sees himself as a white knight, and the viewer sees him as the kind of “nice guy” lunatic who might turn out to be the author of a troubling manifesto. You, Penn Badgley argued last year, is a show about “how far we’re willing to go to forgive an evil white man.” It’s difficult to say whether the writers of the series started out with this intention. Badgley, though, is their most valuable asset, his line readings occasionally verging on incredulous. When Joe’s presumed-dead ex turns up under an assumed name, she goes by “Amy Adam, which now I think about it,” he gripes sarcastically, “is stupid. Was ‘Britney Spear’ taken?” “So unaware of their privilege,” he hisses, spying on a group of three queer people, only one of whom is white. (Their crime, as far as I can tell, is “eating brunch.”) As Dan Humphrey, who turned out to be Gossip Girl’s eponymous gossiper, Badgley has already played a man prone to surveillance, obsessed with a pretty, mediocre woman in a way that made him behave like a sociopath. In You, he gets to act out Dan’s worst qualities writ large. “XOXO,” Joe may as well be saying, in a tone more threatening than fanciful. “You know you love me.”

A city that runs on dreams is likely to make an equally ideal home for a delusional fantasist and a true romantic. What made L.A. Story interesting was not only its skewering of Los Angeles but its sly implication that the invocation of “fate” or “destiny” to justify the pursuit of romantic love is every bit as insane as believing that a billboard cares about your sex life. Likewise, when You ends with the revelation that Love Quinn is also a serial killer, with the two lovers then moving to another hell—the suburbs—it’s a twist on an old formula, making the formula appear absurd: There is a happy ending, but something is, as the Bard once said, not groovy in the State of Denmark. You’s jokes about Los Angeles being the turf of kooky, yoga-bodied airheads are not as fresh or incisive as its earlier, more niche East Coast material. What works best in its second season is the way You expands on its central thesis: Love is crazy, and wanting to be loved is a form of narcissism, and these two factors combined can make it difficult for us to tell a psycho from a suitor. The very last shot of Love, pregnant and beaming on their doorstep, is reminiscent of Gone Girl, another amusing rom-com satire with a body count. Is the allusion an intentional one? Nota bene: One of the show’s minor characters, a cop, is revealed to have the name David Fincher.

Both seasons of You are currently streaming on Netflix.

 

ALL IMAGES