Bridgerton Is Still Frothy Fun, but Its Biggest Weakness Is More Glaring Than Ever

by 24USATVMay 16, 2024, noon 20
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The new season of Bridgerton, in which fan-favorite spinster gossip columnist Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) finally gets together with her longtime crush Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), is just as much of a confection as the preceding two (or three, if you count the prequel, Queen Charlotte). The people are gorgeous, the dresses are stunning, the trees and vines are always perfectly manicured and in bloom, and the action unfolds in a London so green and smokeless you’d barely know the story takes place in the Regency period.

All of this glossy smoothness is what we have come to expect from Bridgerton. Its much-debated multiracial casting practices, which have come accompanied by some small (and, to me, unconvincing) degree of world building explaining Black participation in the aristocracy, create a feeling that this world is a little bit to the side of history, largely unanchored in time and space. To the show’s credit, that’s part of what makes watching it so pleasurable, and other series, like Apple TV+ offering The Buccaneers, have imitated this frothy-fun vibe, to varying degrees of success.

However, this time around, after watching the batch of episodes released as Part 1 of this new season, I—much like the “on-the-shelf” Penelope—confess myself exhausted by standing at the edges of all these endless ballrooms, watching these sumptuously dressed rich people do their dancing and exchange their speaking glances. After the fourth or so installment turning on the events at so-and-so’s musicale or so-and-so’s luncheon, I find myself thirsting for a different setting and different stakes. That second-season flirtation between Eloise Bridgerton and the young printer’s apprentice was awkwardly executed, but Lord help me: I missed it. Just as there are no seasons besides spring in the Bridgerton-verse, there are no real poor, working-class, or middle-class characters in this show. Even the servants don’t have lives. Everything exists to move the pretty people around the ballroom floor.

Of course, this is what the source material—the Bridgerton novels, by Julia Quinn—is like too. Very rarely does anyone who’s not a member of the aristocracy, or at least a wealthy parvenu like Penelope or the illegitimate child of an aristocrat, get a turn in the plot spotlight. Questions of impending deprivation are always kept at the outskirts of the narrative, remaining hypothetical and never threatening the Bridgertons, who are, after all, the people we care about. This family is, thanks to their late father’s and then their punctilious oldest brother Anthony’s fine management of their estate, represented as being quite financially secure. Their unhappiness, if they have any, is in their heads. For the non-Bridgertons of page and screen, questions of financial ruin often loom but never quite seem to strike. The second-season heroine, Kate Sharma, had a “shopkeeper” father and needs to marry her sister off to someone in the aristocracy in order to secure financial support; the Featheringtons always seem to be barely evading some kind of disaster. But at the core of the story is comfort and abundance.

Season 3 even takes the first two seasons’ few actual working-class characters, the Mondriches (Martins Imhangbe and Emma Naomi), and makes their young son a baron through the death of some distant relative. Now the Mondriches are no longer a boxer and his wife, or even the owners of a gentleman’s club, as they became in Season 2: They are, like everyone else, patricians of leisure. They must reconcile themselves to upholding aristocratic propriety by eschewing work, concentrating instead on planning the best possible parties. That means the small escape from the ton that the Mondriches offered is gone; we’re back on the edges of the ballroom, seeing who’s looking at who, again! My feet are tired.

This very limited class milieu is part of what makes reading historical romance novels, and consuming their televisual adaptations, pleasurable for some. But not everyone does historical romance like this. A good counterexample among literary historical romances is Longbourn, by Jo Baker, which turns Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice around and narrates it from the point of view of the servants in the Bennet household, telling the story of a romance between a housemaid and a footman. This is not a Downton Abbey–style “upstairs/downstairs” tale, set in a mansion where the servants are also part of an elevated class by dint of their employment in a grand house. It’s a story of overworked servants employed by a family living beyond their means. The servants have to sweep the cobwebs out of the corners of the guest rooms on short notice and dread coping with the extra burden of laundry that visitors bring and the late nights waiting up when family members go out to balls. They are exhausted and constantly sniping at one another. That exhaustion becomes part of the story of the romance; the hero does the daily work of laying the kitchen fire for the heroine before she gets up, for example, and that’s part of what makes her love him.

Longbourn is not a product strictly of the romance genre. But many other more traditionally structured and marketed historical romance novels also play with class. Alice Coldbreath’s Victorian Prizefighters series features working- and middle-class people who barely have any contact at all with lords and ladies. Women’s work is a frequent plot point; the heroine of one of these stories knows that her man’s for real when he protects her from his evil mother’s constant demands that she take over her daily chores. Cecilia Grant’s Regency Blackshear Family series contains one barnburner of a story, with a heroine who’s a former “kept” woman who falls in love with a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo suffering from a case of PTSD. Sarah MacLean sets many of her novels partially in the demimonde, and even Lisa Kleypas, who loves the aristocratic and wealthy, gives the family in her excellent Ravenels series a serious economic problem that’s grounded in actual history: How can one be a lord at a time when tenant farming is no longer going to support an estate? The answer involves some standing around at functions, to be sure, but much more digging of irrigation ditches.

I don’t just wish for Bridgerton viewers seeking pure pleasure to have to eat their vegetables of historical accuracy or class awareness. Not every show needs to represent everyone, and indeed, it would be a doomed project to try. But, three seasons in, what I miss in Netflix’s Bridgerton and its source material is texture: that sense of variety, in story, experience, and action. Without it, there’s a flatness to the world and all the glittering little figurines inhabiting it. It seems odd to say about a series that became famous for its sex, but I wish that the Bridgertons and the people they fall in love with had bodies. Would it kill someone to break a sweat around here for once? I know for sure that other people are doing their laundry.

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