What is the purpose of period dramas? To be a little specific, what should be the purpose of a period drama? Are they made to revisit an era in excruciating detail? Or to reminisce about a time when romance was more formalized? Or to tell a compelling story that has been buried beneath the sands of time? Well, it can be any one of those reasons, or an amalgamation of them. But since retrospection comes with the opportunity for introspection, period dramas should be made to examine the past (which is largely regressive) instead of simply glorifying old customs and traditions that are still practiced. The problem with the hit Netflix Regency-era period drama “Bridgerton (2020-ongoing)” is that in its attempt to critique a semi-fictionalized version of our history, the show whitewashes it.
Based on Julia Quinn’s novels set in Regency-era London, Bridgerton follows the titular family along with several others as they navigate the season when debutantes (a young woman from an upper-class family who’s ready for marriage) are presented in front of the Queen (Golda Rosheuvel). The Queen chooses a diamond, and she becomes the most sought-after woman during the season of marriage. All this is documented by an anonymous writer called Lady Whistledown (narrated by Julie Andrews), who was revealed to be Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan). It seems like this season is based on Book 2 in the Bridgerton Series, “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” which is about Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) opening himself to the prospect of marriage. After a long search, he is introduced to Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) and her elder sister, Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley). And while the plan is to get Anthony to wed Edwina, he and Kate fall in love with each other, and drama ensues.
Let’s cover the good aspects of “Bridgerton” Season 2 first, shall we? Every single actor in this show is immensely talented. The returning cast, i.e., Bailey, Luke Newton, Luke Thompson, Coughlan, Claudia Jessie, Harriet Cains, Bessie Carter, Ruth Gemmell, Florence Hunt, Will Tilston, Polly Walker, Rosheuvel, Adjoa Andoh, Kathryn Drysdale, Martins Imhangbe, slip into their roles like they had never left them. While Bailey, Coughlan, and Jessie get to dive a little deeper into their respective characters, the rest get to take theirs forward. Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran are the scene-stealers of this season. Although they share the frame with most of the cast, the show significantly livens up when Ashley and Chandran interact. Their love, their hatred, their compassion, their forgiveness, it all seems very organic and felt. Shelley Conn, who plays Ashley and Chandran’s mother, is impactful in the few scenes she is in. Phoebe Dynevor’s appearance can be classified as a cameo, and she stays long enough to satisfy the hearts of Daphne fans.
And that’s about it. Now, onto the bad stuff.
For starters, what is this romance? In Season 1, “Bridgerton” featured marital rape, glossed over it, and then painted over it with the birth of a child. Season 2’s romance centers around Kate, Edwina, and Anthony. Anthony is in love with Kate. Kate wants Edwina to get married. Anthony decides to marry Edwina to get back at Kate. Edwina is in love with Anthony. Kate is also in love with Anthony. So, both Anthony and Kate keep Edwina in the dark and take the engagement between Anthony and Edwina to its brink. Is the audience supposed to pine for Kate and Anthony because they can’t keep their hands off of each other? While Edwina, who’s also in the dark about her inheritance and dowry situation, gets duped for no reason whatsoever? When there’s absolutely zero chemistry between Kate and Anthony, too? Yes, it falls into the cliched zone where the audience is forced to keep their morality to the side because the romantic leads are so in love. Which Kate and Anthony are, on paper. But on-screen, it just seems flat and unconvincing.
This series has been widely described as a version of “Gossip Girl,” which happens to be set in the Regency era. For those who haven’t watched “Gossip Girl,” the show can be described as every soap opera ever but set in the Regency era. Which brings us to the problem with the structure. Romantic subplots in soap operas manage to maintain the illusion of being “interesting” because of the one-two punch of a weekly release and the over-reliance on the “will they, won’t they” dilemma. Credit where credit’s due, writers Chris Van Dusen and Geetika Lizardi do their best to make it look like there’s a possibility that Kate and Anthony won’t end up together. But the finiteness and binge-ability of a Netflix show breaks the illusion. You get to see the entire picture at once, and, minus the anticipation of what’s going to happen next and the lack of some simmering chemistry, the exercise feels frivolous. Maybe Netflix should reconsider their style of releasing shows and take a look at K-Dramas that release episodes on their streaming platform on a weekly basis.
Then there’s “Bridgerton’s” classic act of toeing the line between being an (escapist) fantasy and a big win for representation. Many have pointed out that Season 1’s “color-blind” casting (which means casting BIPOC actors in roles written for white actors) added this layer of fantasy that the show (unlike the books) is a reimagining of a regency era where racism didn’t exist. Which is fine, I guess. But then the director said that that’s not the case and that race was considered during casting. On top of that, there’s the “We were two separate societies, divided by color, until a king fell in love with one of us.” Love, your grace… conquers all “line, which further muddied the water. Thankfully, Season 2 doesn’t have such a line. However, like Season 1 tried to erase the history of British people and people of African origin, Season 2 does the same with Indian people. Names like Bombay (a name for Mumbai that’s largely considered an unwanted legacy of British Colonial rule) and Ghalib (whose work covered the displacement of the Mughal Empire by the British East India Company and the First Indian War of Independence) are name-dropped. Kate, Edwina, and Mary practice Hindu rituals. And that’s all there is to it—a sugar-coated reimagining of a violent past.
The counter-argument that’s usually launched to safeguard re-imaginings like “Bridgerton” is that “it’s not meant to be taken so seriously.” Which raises the question, “Why is it a big win for representation then?” Then the casting of BIPOC actors in “Bridgerton” is nothing but tokenism. It’s a trick to attract a wider audience by presenting someone who looks like them in an aesthetically beautiful (predominantly and historically white) setting but without any introspection, retrospection, or any analysis of the platform that a white and a brown person are sharing. Nothing more, nothing less. If that, and a string quartet version of the title song from “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)”, is good enough for you, well, you will certainly enjoy the series.
The only thing that could’ve been as interesting as the central romance or eclipsed the tokenism in “Bridgerton” is the identity of Lady Whistledown. So, during the concluding moments of Season 1, it was revealed that Penelope Featherington is actually Lady Whistledown. To be honest, it seemed like it was done too soon. If this show is meant to go on for nine seasons (there are nine Bridgerton books), the showrunners should’ve kept it a mystery. The primary reason is the vagueness behind the way Whistledown got her information about the ton. Or even how she got her work printed. Or her writing process, in general. The mystique of it gave the subplot an edge. Now, it’s Penelope who is the Regency era equivalent of a keyboard warrior in their mom’s basement, denigrating and slandering whoever crosses her. Which is fine if the intention is to make Penelope a hateful person, thereby making the show’s narrator hateful as well. But then the show wants you to sympathize with her predicament and root for her relationship with Eloise. So, unless you are incredibly forgiving or not taking things as seriously as the show wants you to, the tedious Whistledown subplot will seem digestible.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that’s made of the issues plaguing “Bridgerton” Season 2. If I start talking about the bland cinematography that undermines the work of the production designers and costume designers, or the inconsistent sound design (what is up with the ambient sound? ), we’ll be here till the end of time. There’s also the condition that it was probably all done during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, let’s not go there. If you’re a fan of watching conventionally hot actors pining for each other despite having no chemistry for around eight hours and have the ability to ignore the history that this show seeks to whitewash, then “Bridgerton” is for you. If the show was pretty to look at, I would’ve told you to shut off your brain and stare at eight hours of gorgeous cinematography. However, the show is mostly ugly or bland. There are maybe a handful of shots involving Kate and Anthony that are beautifully composed. But that’s about it. If you have half a brain and some taste in good television, steer clear of “Bridgerton.”
“Bridgerton” is a period drama television series created by Chris Van Dusen for Netflix.