When Bridgerton’s Season 1 lead, Regé-Jean Page, summarized the essence of the Shondaland series to The Wrap, he described it as “Jane Austen meets ‘Gossip Girl’ with maybe ’49 Shades [of Grey’].” With Bridgerton’s stately English settings and gabby Lady Whistledown pamphlets, all shot and directed for the female gaze, Page’s logline captures the series’ playful remix of classic Austenian themes. While Netflix records were broken for Season 1’s release, history has already repeated itself: within three days of the drop of Season 2, 193 million hours of the series had been streamed — the biggest ever for an English language release.
With Jane Austen-themed romance plots resurging in the public interest, it feels fitting to put the soaring popularity of Bridgerton in conversation with a much quieter cult show, PBS Masterpiece’s Sanditon. Inspired by Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript, Sanditon tracks the exploits of British Antiguan colonizers, specifically Charlotte Heywood, as she stumbles into a life within the eponymous seaside resort. What makes both Bridgerton and Sanditon particularly ripe for comparison is their shared Season 2 predicaments as two Austen-inspired shows that watched their star-power male leads exit the series.
Regé-Jean Page, as Duke of Hastings, anchored Bridgerton Season 1, cementing his status as the definitive pandemic sex symbol along with his spicy scenes with scene partner, Phoebe Dynevor. Likewise, Theo James—within his role as Sidney Parker—turned the heat up in Sanditon. The series shocked conservative period viewers with James’ explicit nudity over the course of the season, rejigging viewers’ expectations for an Austen property on the screen. Controversy aside, both of these men undeniably energized their respective projects by creating a culture of thirst from viewers.
With Page and James’ departures, both projects were forced to pivot. For Bridgerton, Page and Rimes both contend that his storyline was built for a one season capsule, but contradictorily Page was offered a minor spot in Season 2, which he strategically declined on account of his new massive star power leverage, and likely lowballed pay-per-episode rate. For James, Sanditon’s brief cancellation by ITV brought on professional and financial risk. While the show eventually gained a two-season renewal by PBS Masterpiece based on intense fan petitioning, James utilized his downtime to vault to higher profile roles while the show remained in the lurch; he has since secured roles as both a lead in HBO’s Time Traveler’s Wife and a cast member in The White Lotus Season 2.
While Bridgerton was prepared for the departure of its Duke, Sanditon noticeably stumbles its way out of the blocks for Season 2. Bridgerton shifted to a yearning plot, featuring a combination of tropes from enemies-to-lovers to star-crossed lovers in form of Lord Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) thorny love story thwarted by Lord Bridgerton’s prior engagement with Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandra). While the temperature gets turned down from Season 1’s white hot escapades, the overall impact still packs a punch. Like boiling a frog by incrementally turning up the heat, Kate and Anthony accumulate will-they-or-won’t-they tension in stolen glances, brazen horse rides, and accidental bee stings, riveting the audience with classic suspense. While Page’s dynamic ability to hold the screen is muted in Bailey’s performance, he replaces it in his own way through a variety of intense sidelong stares, ranging in meaning from lust to anguish, and as such Bridgerton still manages to hold its center. Thirsty audiences get quenched.
With Sanditon, James’ unplanned departure leaves a noticeable black hole in the Season 2 storyline. Like Bridgerton, which also engages in numerous B-plots with minor characters in concert with the main affair, Sanditon has to do the hard work of convincing audiences that the B-plots are now the main story. Unfortunately, this is where the series becomes noticeably unglued. Writers attempt to steady the ship by introducing a score of new men onto the island to fill James’ wake: Industry’s Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Tom Weston-Jones of Shadow and Bone fame, Normal People’s Frank Blake, Still So Awkward’s Maxim Ays, and Versailles’s Alexander Vlahos With this vast amount of both dubious and purehearted suitors vying for a variety of female characters’ hearts, Sanditon does the equivalent of a magic trick that operates on audience distraction. “Look over here!” says the Sanditon writers over and over again, “You’ll never remember Theo James’ absence with this spectacle of suitors!” But the audience does. Regrettably, none of these men have the sauce James previously delivered, and show indulges in fallen woman plot points that belay the progressivism featured in other aspects of the show’s design.
Sanditon and Bridgerton speak to a moment of democratic entertainment driven by popularity and fan engagement powerful enough to bring shows back from the dead. While Jane Austen’s romantic plot continues to enrapture audiences, her keen political and social commentary keep the engine running, even while audiences focus on the love and lust. If these two series reaffirm anything about the Austenian storyline, it is this: that the permutations of these narratives are infinite, but the material reality of the world—both within the shows and outside in their production politics—and the nature of authentic love keep it honest.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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