In Netflix’s age of constant original series cancellations, Bridgerton seems like it’s built to last. Not because the show is especially good, but because it has nine somewhat discrete novels to pull from and powerhouse producer Shonda Rhimes in its corner. With its second season, Bridgerton has also established a durable formula: high society drama, lots of angst, and eventually, steamy romance. It may as well have been made in a lab to satisfy fans of Outlander during the off-season, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.
With Season 2, Bridgerton has matured a bit, but it’s also lost some of its heat. Season 1’s star-crossed lovers, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon (Regé-Jean Page) have retired to off-screen wedded bliss, although Daphne does pop in to give sisterly advice now and again. The center stage belongs to Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), the family’s responsibility-bound eldest brother. When the second season begins, Anthony decides to pursue sweet, simple Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) but soon finds his eye wandering to her practical older sister, Kate (Simone Ashley).
With Kate and Anthony, Bridgerton follows in the grand tradition of Jane Austen’s love-hate romances. The two characters bicker and avoid one another to the point that their families think their distaste will ruin Edwina’s future. But in reality it’s because they burn for one another. Only, the burning stays at the level of barely stoked coals for most of the season. Every scene the two share is exhilarating, but while Daphne and Simon’s courtship was shot through with eroticism, Kate and Anthony’s is grounded by persistent, mood-killing level-headedness.
The series also carries a whiff of manufactured drama. Just as Season 1 hit its peak with Simon and Daphne’s marriage and consummation, Season 2 of Bridgerton seems to decide where its couple will land mid-way through but continues to keep them apart for the sake of prolonging the plot. Stolen glances that give way to breathless confessions are electric the first time, but less charged the third or fourth. The chemistry of the series thrives thanks to the weight of Regency-era reputation and the pressure it puts on characters, but when stretched across too many hours, these repression-based plots grow exhausting.
None of this is the fault of the show’s stars, who do an admirable job filling the shoes of Page and Dynevor. It’s especially great to see Sex Education’s Simone Ashley in a lead role, and she plays Kate’s mix of no-nonsense protectiveness and subtle vulnerability well. Refreshingly, series writers never plug in cheap, anachronistic girl power moments but let Kate process the confines of her world while still living squarely within it.
The supporting cast isn’t quite so well-utilized. Two of the show’s best characters, Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), are reduced from status quo-bucking besties to a relentless meddler and a bad liar, respectively. The big Season 1 reveal — that Penelope is the show’s own gossip girl, Lady Whistledown — gives way to a tiresome plot about Eloise’s attempts to unmask the author.
For every problem Bridgerton Season 2 solves, it seems to pick up another one. The show eliminates nearly all of its silliest, soapiest subplots this time around, but it doesn’t replace them with anything of substance. Most supporting characters toil in minor B plots as if treading water until a future installment foregrounds them again. Its central romance is more intellectual than last season’s, rooted in the burden of eldest siblings’ selflessness, but in the process, it also lets go of some of the magnetism that made the first season work.
Bridgerton isn’t a great show, but it has great moments. This season’s couple will never be Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, but the series still builds their tension well enough that by the time they finally speak their piece — “You are the bane of my existence and the object of all my desires,” Anthony half-spits — they’re sure to leave romance fans feeling giddy. The show also continues to bring its A-game in costuming and set design, dressing Kate in elegant jewel tones and setting up fancy party scenes full of people who look like pastel cake toppers come to life.
The orchestral covers of modern songs, which by all accounts should be the show’s corniest element, are also employed with precision for maximum emotional impact. Season 2’s first major romantic moment is set to a Vitamin String Quartet cover of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and the scene makes it clear that Bridgerton, if nothing else, understands the power of a well-placed needle drop more than most shows.
In the end, Bridgerton remains likable for not trying to be anything more than it is. The show knows it’s a romance, not a prestige drama. And while Anthony and Kate’s story isn’t quite the bodice-ripper that its predecessor was, it’s still plenty watchable. Bridgerton may not be on fire this season, but it’s still got its spark.
Bridgerton Season 2 begins streaming on Netflix on March 25th.
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