Everyone knows that lightning almost never strikes twice. And that seems to go double in the world of entertainment. Practically as soon as a hit emerges, the immediate next question is: can that success be repeated? Can a show that’s had an incredibly successful, popular first season possibly recreate the same magic in its second?
The stakes are naturally even higher when we’re talking about a show like Netflix’s Bridgerton. The first season of the Regency romance was one of the streamer’s biggest hits, exploding into the pop culture zeitgeist like a sexy, candy-colored bomb. Suddenly, period dramas were cool again. The series’ success was so great that it helped push the entire genre in a more modern direction in terms of diversity and representation, all while embracing more open attitudes towards sex and female pleasure. So maybe there was never going to be a way that Bridgerton Season 2 could recapture the lightning in a bottle that was the series’ initial outing. But it’s still so darn disappointing that it doesn’t.
The thing is: Bridgerton Season 2 is still really enjoyable television and there’s a lot to like here. There are colorful costumes, charming characters, plentiful scandals, and even a super cute corgi named Newton. But book fans likely will resent many of the changes from Julia Quinn’s novel The Viscount Who Loved Me and non-book readers may struggle to believe in the depth of the story’s central relationship. The end result is something that is, on all accounts, honestly mostly fine, but that is ultimately tarnished by the memory of how good what came before it was.
Unlike the series’ first outing, which followed the romance between eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and the handsome Simon (Rege-Jean Page), Duke of Hastings, Season 2 switches gears to focus on her elder brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who has determined that he must, at last, find himself a wife. His quest introduces him to two sisters, Kate (Simone Ashley) and Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran), who have recently arrived in London from Bombay with their mother, who has a past of her own with the ton.
To be fair, Bridgerton Season 2 has set itself a more difficult task from the start than its predecessor faced. Since Anthony was a fairly major character last season—and kind of a huge jerk to several people, including his sister and her eventual husband—the show has to put in some work to rehabilitate his prospects as a romantic lead. This is, surprisingly, not as difficult as one might have originally expected, thanks to some judiciously placed flashbacks that explore several key formative moments in his youth. His behavior doesn’t become less odious in places, but it does become a bit more understandable. And Bailey certainly has the whole long-suffering, painful brooding thing down.
In the first of what are multiple significant changes from the original novel, Bridgerton reinvents the original Sheffields as the Sharmas, now wards of Lady Danbury for the social season who have arrived in town in an attempt to find a husband for Edwina. The decision to racebend the formerly white family of Anthony’s love interest into one of Indian descent is another refreshing and admirable move by a series that has worked hard to diversify the world of the Regency drama. And the season is at its most interesting when it’s exploring the complex relationships between and among the Sheffield women, as well as the history their family has with various other members of the ton.
The connection between Anthony and Kate is immediate and obvious, from their mysterious woodland meet-cute turned flirtatious horserace, to their constant smoldering stares across rooms at one another. And the show takes every available opportunity to underline how alike the two are, from their obsessions with family and duty to their competitive natures and sharp tongues. (Look, any time two people talk about how thoroughly they vex one another you know they’re endgame, is what I’m saying.) But despite this, the eldest Bridgerton has decided to set his sights on Edwina, a younger, more malleable girl, to whom he clearly feels little attraction, but who ticks all the boxes when it comes to what a proper future viscountess should be.
As Anthony attempts to court Edwina, he and Kate keep crossing paths, sparking an attraction that both, Pride and Prejudice-style, express as frequent and overt disgust with every aspect of the other. They bicker, they banter, they tell one another about themselves, they even face off during the Bridgerton clan’s annual uber competitive game of Pall Mall, with Kate wielding Anthony’s so-called Mallet of Death. But unlike Austen’s classic enemies-to-lovers tale, Bridgerton—-in one of the most significant deviations from the book upon which this season is based—thrusts Edwina even more directly into the center of their car crash of an attraction, resulting in a love triangle that often feels as cruel as it does entertaining. (And one which keeps us from fully investing in Anthony and Kate’s love story, since both spend so much time insisting that it’s not actually happening.)
Because of this, much of Season 2 lacks the lighthearted optimism and effervescent joy that was so prevalent in its first, which reveled in the idea and power of love even during what appeared to be its darkest or most difficult moments. Thankfully, this problem eases a bit by the end of the season once the issue of the unfortunate relationship triangle at its center is resolved, and both Kate and Edwina are allowed to become fully realized women rather than the repetitive one-note roles they’ve spent far too long being forced to perform. (I have serious questions about the pacing of the midsection of this season, is what I’m saying.)
There’s also something else rather significant missing from this season, an omission that’s particularly bizarre given the fact that Bridgerton basically made its name as a sexier, racier alternative to the more stoic Regency dramas we normally find in places like PBS. Given all the implied—or even openly stated!—passion between multiple parties, there’s considerably less sex in Season 2, and given that the steamy nature of Bridgerton is, or should be, a big part of its brand, the lack of it is downright bizarre. (And disappointing, given the fairly radical way the show so forthrightly embraced the idea and importance of female pleasure in Season 1.)
Perhaps it’s simply that there’s less room for sexy times—Season 2 has many more side plots to balance and a more truly ensemble scope and feel. In the wake of Daphne’s successful marriage, it is now time for Eloise’s (Claudia Jessie) debut, an event that she handles with as much grace as you might expect (which is to say zero), as she dabbles in radical politics and continues to wrestle with how she feels about everything from the content of Lady Whistledown’s pamphlets to the natural rights of women. We now know Penelope Featherington (??Nicola Coughlan) is secretly the ton’s most infamous gossip, which leads to several near-misses and new calamities as she attempts to keep her identity under wraps.
Elsewhere, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) has a much more significant and active role in the events of this season, Colin (Luke Newton) has returned from his travels to continue being as oblivious as possible around Penelope, and Benedict (Luke Thompson)…exists, I guess. (Which does not exactly make me feel great about the fact that he’s likely meant to be the star of next season.) The Featheringtons have an entire subplot that could be almost completely excised from the rest of the story without any real loss, and even Simon’s boxer friend Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe) gets a small arc of his own.
On paper, this is all well and good and it helps make Bridgerton more complete and well-rounded than it probably has any right to. But part of me can’t help but wish the show used more of this screentime on Kate, herself, the season’s leading lady who feels like a fanfic self-insert as often as she does a fully realized character in her own right. And given that she’s one of the book series’ most popular and beloved figures, that’s rather a shame.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.