‘Bridgerton’ puts its chief gossip on trial

The new season of “Bridgerton,” that steamy Shondaland remix of rom-com and romance tropes set in Regency-era London, focuses less on debuts than glow-ups.

Forget the stunning ingénues upon whose inexperienced backs the series built its brand. This is a season about second chances; about makeovers and resurrections and fresh hopes, especially for those whom the denizens of the gossipy “ton” regard as having few prospects (or none at all). Even Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell), the Bridgerton materfamilias, has a suitor. And this time the show’s wily narrator, Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) — or rather her conflicted creator, Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) — is in the hot seat.

That’s all mildly surprising given that “Bridgerton” plots have always technically revolved around the conceit of a “diamond of the season,” a young lady whom Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) declares the most desirable of her cohort. But the show’s commitment to that premise was already slipping by its sophomore season, which culminated in the “diamond” being displaced by a relative.

The series’ third installment, Part 1 of which drops Thursday, May 16, on Netflix, only amplifies this sense of drift toward its older characters. Not even the Queen can be bothered to declare a “diamond” these days. When she belatedly does so, the girl she chooses — a musically inclined, very beautiful and probably neurodivergent Bridgerton daughter named Francesca (Hannah Dodd) — seems unmoved by the honor.

Francesca’s underwhelming response to being chosen is interesting precisely because it isn’t sass. The girl is polite. In fact, she’s disconcertingly compliant (particularly for a Bridgerton), professing herself quite willing to marry while maintaining that the specifics don’t much interest her. Troubled by none of the hopes or anxieties or romantic ideas that plague her siblings and drive them to grand and pointless rebellions, her main goal is to escape them all. She just wants to play the piano in peace. (Asked in what order she’d like to see her suitors, she replies, “Alphabetically.”)

Having suspected “Bridgerton” of being a bit of a one-trick pony, I’ve been impressed by the series’ stranger moves this season — in particular, the way it largely matches Francesca’s bewildering indifference to her own matrimonial fate. Even Violet, who usually brims with good counsel, seems troubled by her daughter’s clinically pleasant approach.

Stepping in to supply a little drama, since Francesca won’t, are ex-friends Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan). Eloise is still reeling from Lady Whistledown’s ruinous scandal sheet insinuations, and the revelation that her friend was responsible. As for Whistledown herself: Penelope completes her evolution from scribe and observer to agent. The relationship between these two as they try to survive the marriage market while navigating their mutual disappointment — and resentments, and secrets — is the real heart of the season.

Turning the lens on your author figure carries risk. One is that no one in the series (with the possible exception of Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury) has the poise, experience and cunning to believably occupy the Whistledown persona. “Bridgerton” has never worked particularly hard to reconcile breathless, mild-mannered Penelope with the snooty “ton’s” formidable, gimlet-eyed gossip — whose “scandal sheets” are relayed to viewers via grande dame Julie Andrews’s haughty voice-over. Coughlan is a marvel, but she plays Penelope as so guileless she’s practically transparent. In fact, the character’s greatest charm might be her artlessness — especially in a society defined by manipulators. There is no universe in which her “Pen” (in either sense) could supply Whistledown’s jaded and erudite perspective. Or poker face. Or voice.

Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) is back for Season 3 of “Bridgerton,” streaming now on Netflix. Courtesy of Netflix

I stand by that objection while noting that “Bridgerton” has never seen plausibility as a problem. The steamy series took the internet by storm when it premiered during the pandemic for good reason: It took fantasy and its incompatible pleasures very, very seriously. The show committed to a kind of joyous, casual hybridity. “Bridgerton” breezily straddled the space between an anthology series and a limited one, remixed Jane Austen with the erotic journeys of discovery typical of romance novels, and layered classical covers of pop hits over the aesthetic pleasures of period drama. All this in a counterfactual world where the denizens of an insular, Regency-era “ton,” while blinkered and repressive in every other respect, are functionally race-blind.

Erotically speaking, the series has zigged and zagged, too. The first season got almost molecular about sex, building an entire arc out of one character’s refusal to perform a specific act. Many characterized the second season — which was steamy but far less explicit — as a tactical retreat. The third season splits the difference. While Francesca and one of her beaus court in virginal silence, boring their chaperones and siblings to tears, Colin (Luke Newton), the third Bridgerton son, returns from his tour of 17 European cities remade as a sensualist. The naive youth who fell for the pregnant Marina (Ruby Barker) in the first season is now a suave lady-slayer, almost as fond of threesomes as his dissolute brother Benedict (who this season befriends a wealthy, sexually liberated widow). In fact, Colin, for whom Penelope has long pined, is now widely regarded as the “ton’s” most eligible bachelor — along with Lord Debling (Sam Phillips), a vegetarian millionaire whose ecological interests are his life’s work.

Vying for the latter’s attentions — and for Eloise’s friendship now that she and Pen are on the outs — is Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen), that sometime villain whose desperation to marry, and existential loneliness, is heightened now that she’s entering her third season “out” and proposal-free.

Orbiting all of the above is Penelope, who — despondent, friendless, but determined to escape her mother’s company now that her silly sisters are married off — is trying to change. She experiments with new looks, new hair, new colors. Even a new personality. While her efforts to unseat the “ton’s” idea of her yield mixed results, it’s fair to say (without straying into spoiler territory) that the series gets very steamy and stormy indeed. (And that there are a great many very beautiful clothes. And that Coughlan’s wild chemistry with Phillips arguably undermines the effect the show sought to engineer.)

Consistency and momentum are tough to sustain in the streaming era, especially across different showrunners (Jess Brownell took over this season from Chris Van Dusen) and particularly when you’re cycling through a revolving set of protagonists. “Bridgerton” struck this viewer as a particularly tricky franchise to keep from going stale. To its credit, the series’ orgasmic shenanigans are bolstered by real competence. Three seasons in, “Bridgerton” remains silly and winky, sumptuous and fun — despite recycling many a pleasing formula, and even identical beats.

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“Bridgerton,” Season 3, Part 1 (four episodes), is available for streaming Thursday, May 16, on Netflix. Part 2 (four episodes) will be available June 13.

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