It’s tough to underestimate the meteoric impact “Bridgerton” had on the pop culture landscape when Netflix dropped its hit first season around Christmastime 2020. It hit smack dab at the peak of lockdown, fulfilling an anxious, collectively-isolated public with just the right mix of Victorian pageantry and steamy, bodice-ripper sex to weather any tense, election-season family arguments. But following such a lightning-in-a-bottle moment is tough goings, especially when your show is based on a book series that switches focus with every installment. Unfortunately for “Bridgerton” season two, much of the novelty has worn off the Chris Van Dusen-run Shondaland series, which struggles to replicate the recipe while missing a few key ingredients.
The most important of those is the central couple around which season one focused—eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and her rakish new husband, Simon (Regé-Jean Page). Page is nowhere to be seen this season, with Daphne only occasionally visiting the Bridgerton manor to offer words of advice or to talk about their new baby. In practice, this is fine: after all, Julia Quinn’s book series, on which the series is based, turns its attention to the romantic trials of a different Bridgerton child each time, which allows the scope to widen and its ensemble more things to do.
That leaves the focus for season two on eldest brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), still the stubborn viscount of the house, holding down the estate in honor of his late father (Rupert Evans in flashbacks), who died in his thirties of a bee sting in Anthony’s arms when the boy was just 18. Now in his thirties himself, and with the responsibilities of managing the house, he turns to this latest social season with all the pragmatism he feels he requires: Find a suitable woman with decent riches and enough kindness and education to take care of any potential children and tie the knot, true love be damned.
He may well have found the answer in young Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran), the younger daughter of the wealthy, fashionable Sharma family (changed from the white Sheffields from the book, another indicator of the show’s welcome commitment to diversifying its vision of Regency England). She’s sweet, and nice enough, but there’s just one problem: her older sister, the headstrong Kate (Simone Ashley), is determined to protect her from suitors who just want a marriage of convenience. She wants her sister to marry for love, and can smell Anthony’s intentions a mile away, running interference at every ostentatious ball and promenade Britain’s upper-crust families have to offer.
And so we have our central conflict for the season: Will Anthony marry Edwina for the sake of his family’s legacy, or will the growing chemistry between him and Kate lead to something more—even as Kate has her own reasons for leaping straight into early spinsterhood? Would that this conflict was as interesting as the Austenesque back and forth between Daphne and Simon last season, but the chemistry just isn’t there this time around. Bailey and Ashley are fine actors, to be sure, and they fill the roles (and the beautiful-as-expected costumes) well enough. But try as they might, they can’t quite lock in the chemistry, and Anthony’s privileged malaise is just a poor comparison off the back of Simon’s brooding, working-class upbringing last season.
Most of the rest of the supporting cast also gets little to do, with a few exceptions. The most interesting of these is season two’s followup to the revelation that the scribe behind Lady Whistledown’s (Julie Andrews) withering gossip columns is none other than Featherington wallflower Penelope (Nicola Coughlan). This time around, we’re in on the secret along with her, as we follow her efforts to publish her column while keeping her identity a secret. Now, Coughlan gets more layers to play, and her capacity for subterfuge is remarkable to watch—especially as she forges a truce with a French dressmaker (Kathryn Drysdale) midway through the season to smuggle her secrets to the right publishers. It’s a secret that begins to drive a curious wedge between her and Bridgerton bestie Eloise (Claudia Jessie), and their interactions are some of the best of the season.
There’s also a burgeoning subplot involving the new Lord Featherington, a man whose impassioned pursuit of Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) ends up roping her and others into a sham mining scheme. But otherwise, the rest get little to do that they weren’t already doing in the previous season: Adjoa Andoh, one of the highlights of last season, mostly circles around the ton dispensing the occasional withering bon mot and insightful crumb of advice to Kate. The rest of the Bridgerton children get short shrift as well, their stories feeling like they’ve mostly been told already.
And truly, that’s the frustration of “Bridgerton” in its second season, which acts as both a celebration of what fans want and a disappointingly rote repetition of what’s come before. So much of the old show is back, with little variation: The endless rounds of repetitive gossip, melodramatic flashbacks to signpost a character’s secret pain, enough classical covers of modern pop songs to keep Vitamin String Quartet in business for years to come (Among this season’s needle drops: “Material Girl,” “Wrecking Ball,” “You Oughta Know.”) It’s all very fussily constructed and pretty to look at, but long stretches just feel like a repeat of season one.
Strangely enough, what changes there are seem to make the show feel more prudish. Gone are most of the acrobatic, taboo sex scenes of season one, replaced with a constipated sense of duty and flummoxed denial of feelings. Save for a few glances of booty here or there, it basically takes till near the end of the season to send Anthony and Kate into one of the show’s signature toe-curling rendezvouses, which is sure to frustrate viewers looking for something a little racier. Sure, the series’ infamous pall-mall scene is here, and it’s a highlight of the season, giving the corseted and frilled characters a welcome chance to let their hair down. Apart from that, though, you’re in for a long eight hours where characters circle around the same arguments and dilemmas again and again, with little progression until a rushed finale that scrambles to tie up loose ends.
There’s something to be said for familiarity, but “Bridgerton” keeps most of the less interesting stuff from last season and jettisons the scandalous intrigue we tuned in for in the first place. It’s more buttoned-up, less irreverent than last time (pall mall escapades aside), and finds even fewer justifications for its punishing runtime. For a show that prides itself on its progressiveness, both in its racial and sexual politics, season two feels like a step towards the conservative. (But at least there’s a cute corgi this time, which helps.)
Entire eight-episode second season screened for review. Season two of "Bridgerton" premieres on Netflix on March 25th.