Why ‘The Bridgerton effect’ may be wearing off

But season three, which Netflix has carved into two parts, seems so far to be sparking less excitement. Since the first four episodes debuted on Thursday, they have drawn decidedly mixed reviews from critics who are split on whether the show is “losing its bite” or “more lush and enticing” than ever. The new season hinges on a burgeoning romance between witty wallflower Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and handsome cad Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). Though Coughlan’s performance in particular has been praised, some reviewers including The AV Club’s Mary Kate Carr have questioned whether “Pelin” – as fans have dubbed the duo – possess the same crackling chemistry as previous Bridgerton couples played by Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page (season one) and Jonathan Bailey and Simone Ashley (season two).

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In fairness, Bridgerton has never been what Netflix boss Ted Sarandos might call “an awards-y show”. Season one did pick up Emmy nominations for outstanding drama series and the charismatic lead performance of Page, who left the show shortly after the initial run premiered, but season two was only recognised for its costumes and hairstyling. Netflix has never been bashful about trumpeting Bridgerton’s production values: in February 2021, it shared a behind-the-scenes clip of a warehouse housing 7,500 bespoke costumes commissioned for season one.

Bridgerton was the first scripted show developed for Netflix by Shondaland, the powerhouse production company led by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Bloodworth believes it “was never made with the prime intention of elevating the cultural conversation”, but was instead conceived as a “splashy soap opera for streaming”. Certainly, the decision to split season three in two could be interpreted as a cynical ploy to leave viewers on tenterhooks and whip up another batch of buzz when the remaining episodes debut on 13 June. But whether Bridgerton was designed to be closely analysed or not, it has inspired a sizeable number of thinkpieces, many concerned with its superficially progressive approach to race.

Points of debate

Some commentators have praised the show for bringing much-needed diversity to the costume drama genre, which has traditionally been dominated by white faces. In August 2021, Bridgerton’s creator and then-showrunner Chris Van Dusen said the aim was to create a vision of Regency London that is “not colour-blind, as some have suggested… but colour-conscious”. While the series shows people of colour in positions of power – most notably Golda Rosheuvel’s unflappable Queen Charlotte and Adjoa Andoh’s savvy Lady Danbury – it has been criticised for ignoring the grim realities of its historical setting. Last year, historian and author Steven I Martin called it “an absurd take on Black history” because it never mentions slavery. “It is set at a time when Britain was the largest trader in human lives on the planet. Slavery was central to the British economy,” Martin told The Guardian.

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