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Netflix’s Bridgerton Makes Some Improvements to its Popular Formula

The Shondaland/Netflix juggernaut that is “Bridgerton” is back for a third season, after taking a fruitful detour via its “Queen Charlotte” prequel. This new season, focusing on the love story of Nicola Coughlan’s Penelope Featherington and Luke Newton’s Colin Bridgerton, is sure to please fans of the series as it features all the stylistic elements viewers have come to expect and a few, knowing improvements.

For example, there are plenty of instrumentalist versions of pop hits, continuing the modern/Regency era mash-up that makes this show so much fun. “Bridgerton” may be set in the past, but it has effectively tailored its aesthetics, politics, and pacing to today’s audiences. And it’s only doubling down on that formula.

The costumes are as sumptuous as ever, with this season even delivering us a well-earned make-over sequence. And the show creators are clearly having fun with it, starting several tracking shots with close-ups of Queen Charlotte’s exquisite up-dos, placed on top of a mercurial and mischievous Golda Rosheuvel. Even when they don’t start the scene, these do’s often steal it, a celebration of Black hair in regal trappings.

Obviously, the post-race fantasy is also back and in full force. It benefits from some explanation as to how we got to this alternate universe in “Queen Charlotte.” And honestly, if you can stop worrying and learn to love Shonda’s worldview, there’s plenty of joy in seeing Black, Asian, and European (but not Latino or Indigenous) faces all on equal footing in a high-budget, fantasy of the past.

Season three adds the lightest of class critiques to the mix, with characters at one point noting that none of the “ton” have done anything to earn their status as landed gentry. And indeed, they’re forbidden from lowly capitalistic pursuits like… working. It’s a soft and fleeting reminder that even though “Bridgerton” invites us to imagine a world that ends racism in the early 1800s, its fictionalized escape is only possible thanks to a rigid and oppressive class structure whirring just outside the frame.

Off-camera, this class critique remains while the show’s primary focus stays on “romance,” as “Bridgerton” defines it. Yes, the characters fall in love, but more importantly (for this show, at least), they have sex. And “Bridgerton” doesn’t shy away from the details, using them to (mostly) advance the plot and arouse spectators.

Our main pairing is excellent at this task, with both Pen and Colin being underdogs in court, working to reimagine themselves. Pen decides she needs to escape her scheming mother (Polly Walker) and dumb sisters (Bessie Carter and Harriet Cains, having fun with it). So she sets out to find a husband—a tough task for a “young lady” in her third (courtship) season. Back from exile after his earlier scandals, Colin returns to society, ostensibly wiser and certainly more worldly.

As such, these two young lovers mostly avoid the show’s frustrating tendency to romanticize the extreme power imbalances of many of its pairs. Colin and Pen are on more equal footing, although we perhaps do not need to learn his preferences in sex workers (and yet we do). Still, Pen has her own power, if not sexual knowledge and the show emphasizes her strengths.

By season three, “Bridgerton” has learned to portray married-and-trying-to-procreate women who do not know basic biology as ridiculous and not sexy. It lampoons this naivete with Pen’s sisters and their new unions, thankfully not using ignorance as a plot point as it did for Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). Speaking of those two, this season is also better with consent, giving us a meaningful portrayal of what it looks like and making it romantic. We’ve come a long way.

Indeed, Pen’s story (for Colin, despite being of the titular family, is a side player here) is free of previous seasons’ baggage and can clip along nicely. The origins of this post-racial society, its rules of courtship, and even the identity and motivations of its anonymous truthteller, Lady Whistledown, are all already known. So Pen can have her romance without distractions. But don’t worry, season three also features so many other pairings that it could be the last. Regardless, there’s never a dull moment.

All of these factors make “Bridgerton” a nice place to visit. There, love always triumphs, racism is over, and even the virgins are having great sex! Who wouldn’t want to stop by for a few hours every year or so?

Of course, the wrinkle is that sexism persists, and here, the show struggles some, lacking clarity about what exactly it’s trying to say. “Bridgerton” ascribes Pen’s otherness to her outlook and aspirations, but it also casts Coughlin opposite a world of thin women, no matter that back then, the beauty standards would have prized her fuller figure. Able to fill its background with people of all sorts of racial backgrounds, it cannot imagine a similar diversity in beautiful bodies. That puts Coughlin in a strange position that she does not deserve, and the show refuses to comment on it.

Season three also pays much lip service to the power of women’s voices but makes it hard to take those affirmations seriously. Pen may say her writing is more than gossip, but the show does not present it as more literary than Colin’s writings. And, despite being perhaps the most powerful person in the realm, Queen Charlotte is mostly bored. She plays puppet master with the ton, but we never see her concern herself with anything else—like, say, running her kingdom.

It all combines into a frothy confection. It delights. It is pleasant and pleasurable. It is better at doing those things in this iteration. And that is all. Buzz buzz, dearest reader, etc., etc.

The first four episodes of “Bridgerton” season three premiere on Netflix May 16, 2024, with the remaining four dropping June 13. Six episodes screened for review.

Cristina Escobar

Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of LatinaMedia.Co, a digital publication uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media.

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