Last year Netflix brought some semblance of light into a dark 2020 with the release of “Bridgerton,” a Regency-era romance series based off the novels by Julia Quinn. The show was stunningly beautiful, both in its cast and costumes, and led to more than a few embarrassed tweets from viewers who didn’t expect its NSFW sexiness to be something they couldn’t watch alongside grandma. The over year-long wait for Season 2 has raised the stakes while also making audiences say, “Oh, that’s finally coming back.” All of that feels inescapable while watching this new season.
“This is the first chapter in a happy story,” the audience is told by Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley). Kate, her mother, and younger sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran) are new to the ton from India. Edwina hopes to make her debut and find a husband, while Kate seeks financial security for her family. Kate has her reasons for Edwina marrying well, but when her eye sets on Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), it causes problems as Kate finds herself drawn to the man who “vexes” her.
The Sharmas are the predominant narrative, out of several, that dominates “Bridgerton” Season 2, drawing heavily from the likes of “Pride & Prejudice.” Ashley and Chandran work well with the material, particularly the former who embodies every stubborn young woman of the era, from Elizabeth Bennett to Jo March. The problem is with so many other narratives getting equal time alongside it, the episodes don’t just feel longer but Kate and Anthony’s love story isn’t as compelling as the main one from Season 1.
Much of this is also inhibited by Bailey’s performance, which comes off as far too muted until necessity compels him to finally break towards the end of the season. Part of this is scripted. As audiences saw last season, after much carousing with other women Anthony decided to become the patriarch of the Bridgerton clan and make an advantageous marriage of his own. But opposite Ashley, Bailey doesn’t do much to set himself apart. (Especially when the joke of Season 1 on social media was how similar the actors playing the Bridgerton brothers looked and sounded.)
Bailey lacks the charisma of Season 1 breakout star Rege-Jean Page, but the writing never gives us much incentive to want to see he and Kate succeed, outside of a traumatic flashback to Anthony’s loss of his father. Ashley’s Kate has a bit more backstory — her shopclerk father married Edwina’s mother, who was nobility, leading to a scandal — but only enough to further the plot. Like Anthony, Kate feels like a cipher of a character. She’s stubborn and loves her family, and that’s it. Her game of “anything you can do, I can do better” with Anthony yields interactions with them, but it’s more a bubble than a blaze. The two engage in looks and glances till literally the penultimate episode.
But if you aren’t enticed by this romance, there are so many arcs that odds are another one will grip you. The most compelling of the rest involves Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), the Bridgerton clan’s resident feminist, as she continues to track down the voice behind Lady Whistledown. Her investigation leads her to meet a young man, as well as a group of “political radicals” touting women’s suffrage. Jessie’s Eloise has always threatened to veer off into caricature of a feminist of the era, one who eschews petticoats and needlepoint. Here, Eloise starts to find her own interests and notes how different they are from her family’s aims. The plot dovetails nicely with Kate’s, as both women want to find acceptance in spaces they don’t feel completely comfortable in.
And with Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) revealed to be Lady Whistledown last season, much of her story continues to revolve around hiding her secret. Concurrently, her family is dealing with the arrival of the “new Lord Featherington” (Rupert Young), who is supposedly set to solve the families debts. There are also even more narratives, one involving Bridgerton brother Benedict (Luke Thompson) and his painting that feels like such a throwaway that it simply never leaves an impact no matter how often other characters bring it up.
To add a cherry to the overstuffed cake are the numerous callbacks to Season 1 that too often feel like the writers believe Season 1 audiences won’t stick around without them. Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton arrives at several points throughout the season, with a comment about how her husband, Simon (Page), is off doing something. It’s easy to see where Page’s character could have been inserted into the narrative, making one wonder just how self-contained the series planned to be and whether there was truth to the rumors that Page’s character was not going to be just a cameo. Towards the back half of the season Simon’s friend, boxer Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe) shows up with plans to open a gentlemen’s club, but it feels like another weak attempt to bring in Season 1 characters.
“Bridgerton” Season 2 tries hard to please everyone, but ends up feeling watered down. Gone is the sexiness in favor of a more chaste series that almost everyone can watch together. Simone Ashley is a gem this season, but there’s never enough chemistry between her and Bailey to get a fire started.
“Bridgerton” streams on Netflix March 25.