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It took a grand total of three minutes for the first season of Bridgerton to depict a couple in the throes of breathless sex. The second season of Bridgerton waits multiple episodes to show us the same lusty courtesy.
That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it does reflect a more demure, traditionally romantic sensibility for this new stretch of the series, which debuts Friday on Netflix. Based on the books by Julia Quinn and created by Chris Van Dusen, the first season of this Shondaland production became a sensation for the ways it infused a classic costume drama with contemporary touches and a fair amount of semi-explicit sex. This was Downton Abbey But With Bare Breasts, or Pride & Prejudice & Horniness.
The new set of eight episodes is more of the same, theoretically, but with less explicit material and a much slower burn. While the first season of Bridgerton could have existed only on a streaming service or premium cable, the second, with a few minor edits, could easily air on PBS. That makes this iteration less of a spicy twist on a familiar genre and more just familiar, period.
After focusing its initial run on the steamy courtship between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page, who opted not to return this season), attention turns this time to Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), the viscount and eldest son in the Bridgerton family, and Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley of Sex Education), who has come to London to help her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran), navigate courting season and find a husband. Like Simon before her, Kate has no interest in getting married herself. Her plan is to get Edwina hitched, then return to India to live the rest of her life alone and content.
But when Kate encounters Anthony, sparks instantly fly. They bicker over everything — from what constitutes proper behavior to extremely competitive games of pall-mall. They hate each other, which is how you know they’re not-so-secretly hot for each other. In keeping with the genre, they suppress those emotions at the numerous functions that everyone is constantly invited to attend: horse races, weekends in the country, a ball, then another ball, followed by another ball. Ashley and Bailey display great skill at throwing ravenous gazes that suggest they would happily devour each other if only someone would hand them spoons, but sitting through scene after scene of Anthony and Kate fighting the magnetic pull between them becomes repetitive.
Without spoiling the many things Netflix has asked critics not to spoil, Edwina inevitably gets caught up in the drama between her sister and the viscount, and her obliviousness to the electricity between them is so extreme and laughable that Bridgerton itself eventually makes a joke about it. Daphne also pokes her nose in occasionally to advise her brother on his courtship journey, but whenever she comes home, the main thing one notices is how weird it is that her husband is never with her and that none of her prying relatives ever makes a fuss over his absence.
Plenty of romantic fiction has purposely set an attraction on simmer and waited a while before revealing whether the relationship goes anywhere. That approach proves more frustrating here than it might in other contexts because Bridgerton did not take its time to the same extent in season one. Its central love affair and other plot developments contained so much forward momentum that sometimes things moved almost too quickly. Season two steers in the opposite direction, and most of its ancillary story lines — a foray into art school for middle Bridgerton brother Benedict (Luke Thompson), financial concerns for the Featherington family — are not compelling or urgent enough to compensate for the deliberately slow evolution of the Anthony-and-Kate business.
The exception is the continuing mystery surrounding the identity of Lady Whistledown, which adds some welcome regular tension to offset the sexual kind. The anonymous writer of a gossip sheet voraciously consumed by everyone in London, Whistledown was revealed last season to be Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), the perpetually overlooked best friend of Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) and carrier of a massive torch for Eloise’s brother Colin (Luke Newton). But only the audience learned her real identity, so there’s still plenty of curiosity among the characters in season two about who is responsible for the Ton’s version of DeuxMoi. Eloise in particular is eager to investigate, which raises the stakes for Penelope, who lives in constant fear of being outed. This is the most sturdily constructed part of the season and an opportunity to spend quality time with two of the show’s most complex and empathetic characters.
Other elements also continue to make Bridgerton a more than watchable series, including Julie Andrews, narrating again as the voice of Lady Whistledown and making some purplish prose sing. (“Country air indeed clears the mind and invigorates the body. Might this be the final gust that pushes [redacted] over the precipice of a proposal?”) The costumes, hair, and makeup remain as eye catching as ever, with Queen Charlotte, played once more with smirking relish by Golda Rosheuvel, donning a couple of wigs this season that could provide cell service if cell phones had existed 200 years ago. Classical versions of modern pop songs still make sly inroads on the soundtrack, and in what I can only assume is a nod to The Crown, a pet corgi makes a few wonderfully boopable appearances.
But despite its positives, Bridgerton is ultimately not as fully, effectively transportive this go-round. Even though both seasons rely heavily on the tropes of romantic storytelling, this one makes it easier to spot those tropes and become distracted by their presence. Yes, it’s true that there’s less sex in season two, but the real scandal — Lady Whistledown herself would certainly confirm this — is that there’s less excitement.
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