After much longing and ballyhoo, the ITV series Sanditon—airing in the U.S. on PBS Masterpiece—returns for its second season. Based (sparingly) on Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel of the same name, the series tracks the romantic exploits of this Regency era seaside town through the lens of one Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), a provincial young woman who finds herself taken under the wing of one of Sanditon’s founding families.
Though the show has found a devoted following, I was among those who were deeply disappointed by its first season. Screenwriter Andrew Davies may have lent his penchant for adaptations to many other well-received Austen (and Austen-adjacent) works in the past, but Sanditon felt (as I said at the time) peculiarly pulpy. It could be that, or it could be Austen—it couldn’t be both, and in trying to split those sensibilities, it ended up muddled and uncertain in both its tone and direction.
But lo! With Season 2, Sanditon is reborn in six episodes that seem to ask, “you want Austen? Well then I’ll give you Austen!!” Often a pastiche of well-worn tropes and some very familiar plots lifted straight from Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and maybe even Persuasion, the new season of Sanditon is nevertheless very satisfying. It’s also almost entirely a clean slate.
When we pick up with Charlotte here, she is quietly grieving the loss of her Season 1 love, Sidney Parker (played by Theo James, who chose to depart the show after its initial outing). Sanditon makes quick work of that unpleasantness, though, as Charlotte—flanked by her sister Alison (Tessa Stephens) and heiress friend Georgiana (Crystal Clarke)—is greeted by a bevy of new, often shirtless suitors. As such, each of the young women become almost immediately embroiled in romantic pursuits.
Though Charlotte has sworn off marriage, she has caught the eye of a handsome Colonel Lennox (Tom Weston-Jones) as well as the surly, reclusive Mr. Colbourne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), who becomes her employer when she decides to work as a governess for his two wayward charges. Meanwhile, like any Regency girl worth her salt, Alison instantly swoons over a regiment of soldiers who alight in Sanditon, including a Captain Carter (Maxim Ays) and Captain Fraser (Frank Blake) who via for her attentions. As for Georgiana, well, every man in Sanditon is desperate to get his hands on her fortune, but there is a charming young artist, Charles Lockhart (Alexander Vlahos), who brings something a little different to the table.
The dynamics, though, all follow a familiar pattern. As Esther (now Lady Babington) says in the first episode back, “Disdain his every word. If he persists, marry him.” That advice truly sets the tone; as far as Sanditon is concerned, there is no other way to experience love. Still, even if every plot turn is telegraphed (or rushed, in the case of the final episodes) and some more diversity in affection would be nice, these are fertile fields for romance for a reason—and one proposal did bring me to happy tears.
Speaking of Esther (Charlotte Spencer), there is further intrigue still in Sanditon regarding the Denhams. Esther’s aunt, Lady Denham (Anne Reid), continues to be a pill (though a shrewd one), and there is drama to be found as both the scheming Edward (Jack Fox) and Clara (Lily Sacofsky) return to the estate. In Season 1, the hijinks of this group were among the most scandalous of the series, the kind where you had to check the dial to make sure you were indeed watching someone have sex on a snake-tile floor on PBS. And yet, for all its infamy (and un-Austenian display), these were some of the most compelling moments of the first season. The same is still true in Season 2, where Esther finally takes centerstage in a plot that is largely disconnected from Charlotte’s world, but is nevertheless an interesting and at times emotional thread to follow.
I’ve almost never said this about a TV show, but Sanditon Season 2 will be among the few: I wish it was longer. Not only do we not get to spend almost any time with its secondary characters (including the Parkers who took Charlotte in in the first place), but even its main cast suffers from a lack of development. Besides boycotting sugar, we know almost nothing of Georgiana as a person. Alison is fun but sadly one-note, and Charlotte is typically silent unless the plot requires her to make an emotional lecture. The new love interests are diverting, sure, but again it would be nice to have more time to find more depth (the men are also meant to be different ages and ranks, but all look the same).
Just as Season 1 did, Season 2 ends on a cliffhanger that begs for a third outing (which has already been commissioned), so there is more story to tell. Still, it would have been nice to have a least a few more episodes to explore the fascinating layers of the town and its inhabitants—especially since the series sets them up as thoroughly modern. (This is a town scandalized by nothing, welcoming to all, and surprisingly progressive. It’s reminiscent of Netflix’s Anne with an E, and I wish Sanditon would lean in and do more to explore these ideas like that series did.)
Further, Season 2 continues with Season 1’s weakness of uneven writing that is simply ludicrous sometimes, but the show—clearly needing to regroup after the loss of James’ Sidney—finds stronger footing as it progresses. By the end, there are enough suitable twists, swoons, secrets revealed, heartwarming reunifications, and heartbreaking misunderstandings to remedy many of its shakier moments. Ultimately, though Sanditon may have tamed down its more shocking sensibilities in a desire to be more Austen, it has sought to take the best of what she gave us and remix it for its own purposes to entertaining, if imperfect, effect. Or to paraphrase: disdain its every word, but as romance persists, keep watching.
Sanditon Season 2 premieres March 20th on PBS Masterpiece.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.