A new season! A chance to begin the game again, with some unknown players but with the rules staying the same. As it was for the high society of 19th-century London, gossiping about which rich young men will woo which comely young ladies at this year’s social events, so it is for a hit TV show on its return, tasked with providing the same thing, but different. The writers of Bridgerton, Netflix’s period drama smash, enjoy some knowing puns as their characters spend episode one of the second run wondering what this “new season” will hold.
What does it hold? A new protagonist for starters, as per Julia Quinn’s source books, which deal with each of the eight Bridgerton siblings in turn. Eldest daughter Daphne is now married and almost entirely absent, so the pressure is on senior son Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) to get on with picking the best woman in town and converting her into a viscountess. Before he throws himself back on to the carousel of balls, parties and recitals he meets Kate (Simone Ashley), an intriguing stranger with whom he shares a provocative verbal spar, the sort of encounter that truly excites him. Dutifully putting that out of his mind, he rocks up to the first ball of the season and is introduced to Edwina (Charithra Chandran), an impressively capable type who is soon earmarked as the ideal fiancee for a man of Anthony’s stature. Have a guess who Edwina’s older sister is.
One need not have consumed a surfeit of novels of manners to know how the love triangle between Anthony, Kate and Edwina will develop, which does not help with the challenge season two faces. Bridgerton is still sweeter and fizzier than rival period dramas, with its sly anachronisms and racially diverse casting making other waistcoat-busters not just set in the past but stuck there. Those things are expected of it now, though, rather than being a pleasant surprise as they were when the show debuted in 2020. We know roughly what we’re getting, so it’s unfortunate that, in the case of this main narrative, we know exactly what we’re getting. What shall be known as the “bee-sting panic attack” scene is one of the less successful attempts to enliven some obvious story beats.
We’re also left short of equivalents to the celebrated season-one sex scenes, which, apart from being unusually explicit for the genre and notably focused on the female experience, felt like an integral part of the plot, not merely glacé figs atop a grand confection. They were a product of the original romance, between Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne and sadly departed breakout star Regé-Jean Page as the intense Duke of Hastings, being a heady, horny, impetuous thing – young love, in other words. But now we’re dealing with a tale of emotions clashing with responsibilities that’s more grown up and simply not as fun.
That is not to say that the pleasures of Bridgerton have dissipated. It’s still amusing to notice that the string section in the background is playing cover versions of You Oughta Know, Material Girl or, when the queen is awarding the most covetable debutante the title of “diamond”, Diamonds by Rihanna. The gardens are lush, the houses are colossal and there’s some terrific horsing through parkland. Adjoa Andoh continues to excel as Lady Danbury, the all-seeing doyenne of the scene who’s more regal than the actual queen, and is the sort of materteral, flinty maven around whom good period dramas tend to revolve.
The rolling subplot about a scandalous gossip pamphlet written by the nonexistent Lady Whistledown also has new energy, in the wake of the season one finale confiding in the audience who this journalistic Pimpernel is. Now we can observe as they try to evade detection, while facing up to the power they wield. Not all the smaller story arcs contribute so effectively, but one that does is that of society refusenik Eloise, whose intellectual curiosity leads her into a romance across class boundaries, crystallised by a lovely take on the trope of two people saying they love each other without saying they love each other. As Eloise, Claudia Jessie remains the funniest presence in a show that could use a dash more outright comedy and a bit less arch sass.
In the closing scene, as the players gather for lawn fireworks to celebrate another set of loose ends neatly tied, Bridgerton is in fine health and ready for what will doubtless be many more seasons. Next time, though, it might need to work harder to feel new.