The bodice-ripper got a feminist makeover with the first season of “Bridgerton,” the merrily ahistorical courtship soap set among London’s pretty and pedigreed. Adapted from Julia Quinn’s novel series, the Regency-era romance imagined for its female protagonist, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), a new kind of happy ending – not her wedding to the Duke of Hastings (series breakout Regé-Jean Page), but her negotiations with him for a sexually and emotionally fulfilling ever after.
The post-racial period drama from producer Shonda Rhimes returns sans the debut season’s male lead (Page), its most compelling updates to its genre or the steaminess that made it a pop-cultural phenomenon during the touch-starved pandemic. Season 2 offers in their stead a more conventional (and, sadly, far less horny) follow-up, centered on Daphne’s imperious older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and his pursuit of the perfect-on-paper Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) despite his irrepressible attraction to her marriage-phobic older sister Kate (Simone Ashley).
One of the most promising character dynamics of season 1 was the mother-son tension between Anthony and his sometime confidante Violet (Ruth Gemmell), who was forced to relinquish her prerogatives as the family matriarch when her husband’s sudden death left her priggish eldest the legal head of the household. The development of that relationship is one of the highlights of the new season, with the characters’ inability to bond over their shared grief over the previous Viscount Bridgerton intriguingly expanding the family’s backstory.
In contrast, the push-pull between Anthony and Kate feels rote and overly familiar, even for a historical romance. It takes far too long for the pair to realize that they’re one and the same: firstborn children whose overprotectiveness and dutiful self-sacrifice for their sibling(s) inspires resentment rather than gratitude. After nearly bungling Daphne’s prospects last season, Anthony almost torpedoes his own here by letting it be known that no woman in “the ton” (W’s are for us plebes, I guess) is worthy of being the well-mannered breeding sow through which he hopes to continue his family line. But then he meets Kate and Edwina, and a rushed engagement proves far more difficult to leave than enter.
Like the Duke of Hastings, Anthony eventually gets the Mr. Darcy treatment; his outward callousness is revealed to belie an inner softness and a misplaced ethical rectitude. But sparks don’t exactly fly between Bailey and Ashley; the latter, especially, is a depthless addition to the cast. That leaves a flatness at the center of the second season, which is otherwise rather absorbing once the plodding table-setting is taken care of in the overlong premiere. The aesthetics, too, strike just the right balance between girly and grand, even if the twinkling fairy lights have been jettisoned: We’re still treated to string quartet renditions of Miley Cyrus and Alanis Morissette; never-ending parades of sequins, jewels and lace; and hairdos so decadent they make Marge Simpson’s mutant beehive look sensible.
Each of Quinn’s books follows a Bridgerton heir’s path to romance, and with the TV series renewed for two additional seasons, chances are good they’ll center on bookish, sarcastic Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and restless, adventure-ready Colin (Luke Newton). Along with their friend and neighbor Penelope (a winsome Nicola Coughlan) – revealed last season to be Lady Whistledown, the pseudonymous author (voiced by a purringly camp Julie Andrews) of a tabloid pamphlet about the scandals of the ton – these younger characters are challenged by one another to think about what kind of adults they want to become instead of who they wish to wed.
Theirs is the kind of B-plot more engaging than the A-plot, and all the more relatable for how much the romantically disinterested Eloise and chubby and likely dowry-less Penelope aren’t the picture-perfect prospect that Daphne was. If Daphne – anointed 1813’s most desirable debutante by the queen herself (Golda Rosheuvel) in the first season – only found true love by the skin of her teeth, what chance do Eloise and Penelope have? And how else might they find contentment in this world?
Despite a slow start, there’s a great deal more narrative polish and visual splendor to this season. Most of the ancillary characters have been culled to the most essential 30 or so, and the scheming Mrs. Featherington (an excellent Polly Walker), Penelope’s abruptly impoverished mother, continues to sniff out weakness and opportunity with a lupine relish, this time with the aid of an unexpected ally. And yet all the crowded balls, deer hunts and horse races in the world can’t distract from the second iteration’s greatest disappointment: its utter expectedness. “Bridgerton” airs Fridays on Netflix.
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