The first season of creator Chris Van Dusen and producer Shonda Rhimes’s “Bridgerton” quickly became a sensation after it aired on Netflix in December 2020 — what it lacked in sheer cinematic prowess, it made up for with sex. The appeal was not purely sensational, as a previous Herald review observed. The exploration of sexuality in “Bridgerton” felt groundbreaking not only because the genre of period dramas had been so notably chaste until then, but also because of its attention to the female experience of pleasure.
The collective sigh of disappointment at the fact that the second season has considerably less sex in it is not surprising, then, despite its overall commercial success. But the comparative lack of sex scenes does not mean that the series turned down the heat — if anything, the season displays the writers’ adeptness at creating and maintaining an even higher level of sexual tension through glances, whispers and near-touches. And this is still a far cry from Jane Austen’s notably sexless world: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy could not conceivably handle the sexual overtones palpable in the shaky breaths and almost-kisses that protagonists Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma share.
Anthony and Kate replace Daphne and Simon as the central characters of the season, following the sequence of Julia Quinn’s book series on which the show is based. Set in 19th-century London, the series focuses on the central concern of Regency-era high society, identified so long ago by Austen herself: marriage. With every new courting season, young ladies make their debuts to find well-suited matches. Kate’s younger sister Edwina is among these debutantes, and Anthony had his sights set on her for the perfect, practical and loveless marriage he sought, a plan complicated when he develops feelings for her older sister.
The plotline is not particularly inventive by any measure — but it never claims to be. There is something comforting about the predictability of the slow-burn romance between two characters determined to honor their duties to their families before ultimately succumbing to an unbridled passion. Thus, “Bridgerton” delivers exactly what it promises: pure escapism, filled with swoon-worthy moments of love, lust and tortured yearning that make this season far more enticing than the first.
That said, the first season was striking in its own right — and not only because it made the world of period dramas less chaste. It also made it less white by including Black aristocrats and royalty, with Regé-Jean Page playing the male protagonist, Simon Basset. While Basset was notably absent from the second season, the series continues its diverse representation. Kate and Edwina Sharma move to London from Bombay, India, and the characters are played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran, both of whom are British Tamil. This is more groundbreaking than it should be, and Ashley reflected in an interview on the emotional experience of seeing herself and Chandran, “two dark-skinned Indian women,” on screen.
“Bridgerton” is definitively not "Jane Austen with sex,” as it has been widely referred to since the first season aired. Even through the lens of its sardonic narrator, Lady Whistledown, the show lacks Austen’s piercing wit and timeless commentary. But the comparison is as unnecessary as it is inaccurate. “Bridgerton” is unapologetic about the mindless escapism of the glittering world it creates, stringing together striking regency costumes with classical renditions of pop songs like Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and Madonna’s “Material Girl'' that work far better than they should, forming the perfect backdrop for the sizzling, slow-burn romance that will leave you wanting more.