‘You’ Co-Creator Sera Gamble on the ‘Crazy,’ ‘Shocking’ Second Season of the Netflix Phenomenon
Showrunner Sera Gamble dishes on how ‘You’ became a cultural phenomenon—that attracted 40 million viewers—and why the L.A.-set Season 2 is even more “shocking” than the first.
On Jan. 17th of this year, Netflix did something unusual: they revealed the ratings for You, their “new” thriller starring Penn Badgley. And they were massive.
“Joe isn’t the only one watching: @YouNetflix is on track to be viewed by more than 40 million members in its first four weeks on Netflix!” the streamer tweeted.
The earth-shattering numbers left co-creators Sera Gamble and Greg Berlanti, who are no strangers to TV smashes, in a state of shock. “I don’t really know how to wrap my head around that many people!” Gamble tells The Daily Beast. “Greg and I both had experience on other shows that have had the ‘Netflix bump,’ but it was a pleasant surprise that this went well beyond that.”
It was not only a strange move for Netflix, which rarely (if ever) discloses its viewership numbers, but also for You, given the show’s bizarre trajectory.
After several other networks passed on it, and a number of months spent on the shelf, You debuted on Lifetime on Sept. 9, 2018. The series, based on the books by Caroline Kepnes, features Badgley as Joe Goldberg, the soft-spoken manager of a New York City bookstore who sets his sights on Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), an aspiring writer seeking respite from her vacuous, high society gal-pals. The two soon hit it off over their mutual appreciation of literature (and an incident where Joe saves her from getting split in two by an oncoming subway train)—only Joe reveals himself to be, well, a homicidal maniac who will kill anyone that he perceives to be preventing their happily-ever-after.
Despite strong reviews, the Lifetime premiere of You attracted only 820,000 viewers; its finale, which aired on Nov. 11, 2018, garnered just 530,000. Less than a month after that, Lifetime passed on the second season of the show. It was quickly scooped up by Netflix, its international distributor, rebranded as a “Netflix Original,” and released on the streaming service on Dec. 26, 2018.
And then the binging began.
“One thing we always had in mind in the writer’s room was we wanted the show to function as something you could binge,” says Gamble. “Greg and I talked about how reading the books by Caroline really feels like binging a great TV show. We always thought it would follow the pattern of airing weekly in its first run, and then it would land on Netflix and people would hopefully scoop it up and binge it quickly. So we had Netflix in mind while we were designing it.”
As for why the series was so criminally overlooked on Lifetime, she adds, “There’s a ton of noise and a ton of great product in the marketplace, and you hope the great project you love will somehow pierce through the clamor of a thousand shows. It’s hard to break through and become something that people are talking about a lot.”
Part of You’s appeal was the way it deconstructed and reassessed classic romantic tropes in television and cinema—where there’s a razor-thin line between “being romantic” and “stalking.”
“We are benefiting from the fact that stories are told about men who are similar to Joe Goldberg all the time where that man is framed as the hero of the story,” explains Gamble. “One of the reasons we’re making this show and exploring this territory is because we are so interested in why we are so programmed to forgive men who do bad things—especially in the name of love. If you look at every great romantic comedy, it just wouldn’t have the drama or the stakes if the guy didn’t have to fight really hard, if the couple didn’t have to keep secrets, if the guy didn’t do some things in a cheeky or sweet way that, in real life, may be borderline criminal behavior. So we’re peeling back the layers on that.”
While reading Kepnes’ books—You and its sequel, Hidden Bodies—Gamble was struck by how much she was rooting for Joe and Beck to succeed as a couple, against her better judgment. She found this “deeply troubling,” and sought to explore “the idea that we’re so quick as a culture to forgive a man and to frame his actions as heroic, and to blame a woman and say she put herself in a bad situation and she got what she deserved.”
The show also did an entertaining job of satirizing the hollowness of America’s gilded youth, or “Generation Instagram”—as epitomized by Beck’s friends Peach Salinger (Shay Mitchell), heiress to the J.D. Salinger fortune (ha!); Annika (Kathryn Gallagher), a social media influencer hungry for ‘likes’; and Lynn (Nicole Kang), another status-obsessed socialite.
“The troubling aspect of it is obvious to anyone who spends any time on Instagram or Twitter, but as those platforms mature, they feel impossible to avoid,” says Gamble. “And there’s something fundamentally manufactured about the way that we portray ourselves on them. It’s a trap.”
“We have traded our privacy away for this peek into other people’s lives, and the ability to be both exhibitionists and voyeurs,” she continues. “Privacy is pretty dead is the bottom line.”
In this way, You served as a continuation of Gossip Girl, the mid-aughts teen-drama series that made Badgley a household name, and skewered cell phone and celebrity blog culture. According to Gamble, Badgley—whose demented, go-for-broke performance is nothing short of Emmy-worthy—was well-aware of this connection, branding the suspenser a “social experiment.”
“Penn calls it a meta-continuation of Dan Humphrey. He’s got a great sense of humor about it,” offers Gamble. “Our writer’s room has plenty of fans of Gossip Girl, too. We were aware that it treaded in some of the same territory as far as it being an early look at the impact of social media on groups of people.”
She pauses. “It only gets crazier in Season 2—and that’s because we know the characters even better now. That’s the contract the show has with the audience: we promise that these characters will remain human and grounded, and that if Joe is doing something because he has a fundamental code that is meaningful to him, then we’re not going to break that to just do something crazy. As long as the rules are solid, then we get to do really, really crazy shit within those rules.”
[WARNING: Some Spoilers]
When we last left Joe, he’d killed his supposed great love, Beck; framed her therapist (John Stamos!) for the crime; and released her book posthumously, to great acclaim. Nobody suspects Joe of killing Beck—except Candace (Ambyr Childers), Joe’s rumored-to-be-missing ex-girlfriend who mysteriously reappears in his bookstore demanding answers.
Gamble can confirm that Ambyr Childers will return as Candace, who serves as the main “antagonist” to Joe in Season 2; that Peach Salinger is “indeed pretty dead” (R.I.P.); “Paco is living a much happier life, so you won’t see him for a while”; and the jar of pee that Joe accidentally left in Peach’s Connecticut mansion may “come back to haunt him.”
There’s also the matter of exactly why Joe, a die-hard New Yorker, decides to move to Los Angeles in the first place, and how this maniac fares in the City of Angels.
“L.A. is not a city Joe would even want to visit if he had all the choices in the world. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, and many New Yorkers have a reputation for looking down on L.A. Plus he’s a bookstore owner, and the stereotype of L.A. is it isn’t a city packed with readers,” says Gamble. “He comes to L.A. because it’s a good place to go if you don’t want people to find you, and from there, he meets some people in L.A. and at a certain point has to stay. But it’s not as if he moves to L.A. and falls instantly in love with the place. In the same way we got to stab at a certain subculture of rich people who live shallow lives in New York, there’s a different but also fun and compelling version of that in Los Angeles. There’s a culture of that here that is very specific to L.A., and we get to see that through Joe’s eyes.”
Season 2 of You began filming in February, and will wrap in late June. Gamble isn’t sure when exactly it will premiere on Netflix, though sources at the streamer say that late fall 2019 seems likely. She is, however, extremely excited for audiences to see what the show will have in store.
“Season 2 is going to check a lot of the boxes for people who enjoyed Season 1, but we also didn’t seek to replicate Season 1,” she says. “We take it to new, different and crazy places. There’s a lot more in this world to explore, and we’re going to keep it going for a while.”