Review: Does 'You' try to turn Joe into the victim in Season 4?
How many times can stalker and murderer Joe Goldberg wander into a social circle of rich jerks and start killing them, or watch someone else do it?
At least four, apparently.
While still creepy, twisty and anchored by Penn Badgley's unsettlingly charming performance as Joe, something about Netflix's "You" Season 4 (first five episodes streaming now, remaining five March 9, ★★½ out of four) just doesn't feel quite as sharp as its previous seasons.
Any series with as outlandish a concept as "You," about a self-proclaimed nice guy who commits truly evil acts, has to become even more absurd with each passing year to stay afloat, but it's a risky balancing act to avoid corniness and cliché. And in its fourth season, "You" is beginning to turn from sinister to soap opera.
After narrowly escaping death and prosecution in the Northern California suburbs in Season 3, killing his equally murderous wife Love (Victoria Pedretti) and giving up his infant son, Joe heads to London in search of his new obsession, Marienne (Tati Gabrielle).
But instead of relentlessly pursuing her, Joe decides to settle down to a simple new life in the U.K. as a soft-spoken literature professor. Of course, his life never stays quiet, and after one drunken night out with members of the upper class and a mysterious death, Joe is involved in a new crime spree and is drawn to yet another woman, icy Kate (Charlotte Ritchie, "Call the Midwife").
More: 'You' star Penn Badgley reveals what he would do if he could meet Joe Goldberg: 'I would hug him'
But this time, he has a stalker of his own, a "you" sending him menacing, anonymous texts and trying to frame him for various crimes.
"You" likes to play with tropes and audience expectations – revealing that Joe's Season 2 stalking victim was a killer herself, among other genre-bending twists – so turning the "you" of the series into Joe's predator instead of his prey feels like a natural way to change things up as the show ages.
It's just that this mysterious figure feels a bit tired and contrived, with too many elements of the "Pretty Little Liars" text-happy villain "A" in the elusive antagonist. A series intently fascinated with books and literature makes its inspiration well known from the outset, as Joe peruses a stack of Agatha Christie novels, searching for a formula that will help him find out who the "you" is. It might as well hit the audience over the head with a copy of "The Mousetrap."
One thing that has served "You" immensely well in past seasons is the series' complete understanding of specific worlds: The Upper East Side of Manhattan in Season 1, Los Angeles on the periphery of Hollywood in Season 2 and the wealthy momfluencer suburbs of Northern California in Season 3.
The slice of British upper-crust society "You" slips Joe into this time around seems more of a caricature, perhaps a pitfall of transporting an American series abroad. When one socialite forces a domestic employee to get on his hands and knees and act as a hoop in croquet like she's the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland," satire gives way to cartoonishness.
It doesn't help that the "eat the rich" subgenre has been done and redone on TV and film lately, much better than "You" manages here, at least in the first part of the season. "The White Lotus," "Triangle of Sadness" and other classist satires have taken on the wealthy with sharper knives and more to say than "You," which points at its mustache-twirling villains and can only lamely attempt to laugh.
It's a shame because when "You" was at its best, particularly in the stellar moments of Seasons 2 and 3, there was nothing else on television quite as gripping and unsettling, that made us feel for a protagonist as evil (but ruggedly handsome) as Joe. Now he just seems like one more sweaty, bearded man floundering around a murder mystery at a British country estate.
"You" has lost the inherent "You" at its center.
More: 'You' Season 3: Joe Goldberg is still a bad person. But did the finale redeem him as a father?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'You' Season 4 review: Disappointing new episodes turn on Joe