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Netflix's 'Bridgerton' Season 2 wants to be a (less) guilty pleasure

Netflix’s adaptation of the “Bridgerton” novels by Julia Quinn debuted Christmas 2020 as part of a string of unexpected hits for the streaming service. Some sequels to those hits have failed to live up to expectations, but the sophomore outing of “Bridgerton” is just as delightful as its first, even if it’s much safer. The Shondaland-produced series is still an effortlessly binge-able, dreamy fantasy of a diverse and passionate Regency-era London. But it also rewrites the novel it’s based on, “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” into something far more mainstream.

When “Bridgerton” season one debuted, critics focused on two things: the diversity of the cast and the sheer amount of sex on screen.

When “Bridgerton” season one debuted, critics focused on two things: the diversity of the cast and the sheer amount of sex on screen. The former is part of a growing (and very overdue) trend in period dramas to tell stories that aren’t about white characters. PBS’ “Sanditon” has tried to aim for gritty realism; HBO’s “The Gilded Age” went for a more melodramatic soap opera vibe. “Bridgerton” leaned into the fantasy romance element and used a real argument among historians over whether King George III’s consort, Queen Charlotte, was of African descent as an excuse to create an England teeming with interracial love.

The first season of “Bridgerton” also handled the dirtier parts of the romance genre in a radical way: by putting it all on screen, blushes be damned. Moreover, it did it by following the specific tropes of the regency romance, where marriage typically occurs fairly early in the story — followed by a lot of bedroom antics that double as emotional character development.

Not every book in the “Bridgerton” series follows this formula. (The third one, which is basically “Bridgerton Does Cinderella” does include a more mainstream, Disney-style romance arc.) “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” which is nominally what season two is adapting, is firmly part of the “marriage in the middle” tradition. And its two lovers, Viscount Anthony Bridgerton and firmly on-the-shelf spinster Kate, discover that love (and marriage) can heal the emotional traumas they carry.

Shondaland and Netflix clearly appreciate liberal amounts of bodice-ripping. They seem a little more wary of trauma. The backstories of Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and Kate are both rewritten, with Kate’s character essentially transforming into someone totally new: Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), an Indian immigrant with her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran), and mother, Lady Mary (Shelley Con), in tow. This Kate is still in her late 20s and believes it when society tells her she’s unmarriageable. And the family fortune still rides on her younger sister’s ability to land a rich husband.

The alteration of Kate’s story keeps with the show’s commitment to diversity. In season one, the Duke of Hastings family was re-conceived as Black landed gentry, giving an extra dose of “respectability politics” to various interactions and family dynamics. Here, Kate’s family is South Asian, the largest minority group in the U.K., and one that fits with the colonialist history of England.

But the rest of the changes are all about taking this regency romance and turning it into something more standard for mainstream consumption. Kate and Edwina both fall for Anthony, creating your classic love triangle. Kate is less defined by the unfair way single women are treated by society and more by her outsider status. This, of course, makes it easier for the average viewer to treat her as an avatar for themselves. And the eventual marriage at the center of the series has shed the somewhat silly serendipitous gimmicks (a bee sting is involved) of the novel, as well.

The result is a more passionate slow burn than the first series. This also should give “Bridgerton” more room to grow its rollicking ensemble, with plenty of subplots for younger siblings that are building toward their own love stories in future seasons. (The show is already renewed through season four.) On the other hand, it’s also lot less transgressive. Hopefully season three will bring back just a bit more of that daring side viewers initially fell in love with.

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