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‘Bridgerton’ Review: In Season 3 of Netflix Favorite, the Spell Starts to Wear Off

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Falling for a TV show is not exactly like falling for a romantic relationship. But it’s not unlike it, either. There’s the initial flirtation, when you sample an episode or two to see how it strikes you. If all goes well, there’s the moment of commitment, when you decide to stick around to see the story play out. Then there’s the long haul: With each successive season, the series has the opportunity to deepen and mature — or to stagnate.

With its third outing (fourth if you count the spinoff Queen Charlotte), Netflix’s Bridgerton is no longer in the early days of its courtship with us, and unfortunately, it’s starting to show. While the latest chapter faithfully delivers on everything we’ve come to expect from this world — virginal heroine, rakish hero, high-society scandal, instrumental pop covers — it’s also the first in which the formula feels more familiar than thrilling.

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Bridgerton

The Bottom Line Still plenty sweet, but not quite as delectable.

Airdate: Thursday, May 16 (Netflix)
Cast: Nicola Coughlan, Luke Newton, Claudia Jessie, Adjoa Andoh, Golda Rosheuvel, Jessica Madsen, Jonathan Bailey, Simone Ashley, Polly Walker, Hannah Dodd, Martins Imhangbe, Ruth Gemmell, Luke Thompson, Victor Alli, Julie Andrews
Creator: Chris Van Dusen

To be sure, there’s still plenty of fun to be found on the Regency-era marriage market, this time under showrunner Jess Brownell (replacing creator Chris Van Dusen). The main storyline is built around the series’ single most charming character, Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) — the wallflower who secretly has the entire ton under her thumb as Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of its most notorious scandal sheet. For years, Penelope has pined after Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), her big-hearted friend and neighbor. When Colin returns from his grand tour of Europe at precisely the moment Penelope decides it’s time to get serious about finding a husband, those long-simmering feelings come to a head.

After knocking about the supporting cast for years, Newton and Coughlan both get the patented Bridgerton glow-up for their time in the sun. Colin barely makes it past the opening credits of the premiere before he strips off his shirt, to amused ribbing from his big brothers Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and Benedict (Luke Thompson). And rarely has any Bridgerton heroine looked dreamier than Penelope, adorned by costume designer John Glazer in shimmering, elaborate constructions that read more fairy-tale fantasy than prim historical drama. In their steamiest moments together, Coughlan and Newton emit a tenderness that instantly wipes away any doubts a viewer could possibly have about the characters’ ardor for each other.

On the whole, however, this outing lacks the giddiness of earlier ones. Technically, there’s still plenty of skin. Previous leads Anthony and Kate (Simone Ashley) spend much of their return tangled in bedsheets, deep in the bliss of their honeymoon phase. Colin, who’s returned from his travels more dashing than ever, spends his days flirting with every eligible bachelorette in London, and his evenings sleeping his way through the brothels. And Benedict is stuck yet again in an aimless subplot that — at least in the six hours of eight that I’ve seen — serves no apparent purpose beyond meeting the season’s quota of sex scenes.

But the delicious yearning that has been Bridgerton‘s bread and butter is dulled, significantly, by the fact that there’s not much actually standing between the would-be couple. It’s simply a matter of waiting out Colin until he catches feelings for Penelope — and even once he does, he’s so slow to make a move that one might be tempted to root for her other suitor, the scandalously vegetarian Lord Debling (Sam Phillips).

Meanwhile, despite the friends-to-lovers premise, we are given little sense of what Colin and Penelope are like as buddies before they’re thrust into the awkwardness of attraction. Combined with the fact that Colin is written to have little of the rich inner life that Penelope enjoys (his declaration that love is all he cares about is sweet, but also makes him one-dimensional), the relationship that should be this volume’s breathless centerpiece feels uneven.

If anything, the most poignant love story is the one between Penelope and Colin’s little sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie), childhood besties whose bond was destroyed last season by Eloise’s discovery of Penelope’s activities as Whistledown. Eloise has since warmed up to mean-girl Cressida (an amusing Jessica Madsen), while Penelope has retreated into the company of her intolerable family. Yet neither woman seems able to get the other off her mind. When Penelope unveils her makeover at a party, it’s Eloise, not Colin, who can’t tear her eyes away. When Penelope sets her sights on Colin, it’s Eloise, not Debling, who reacts with the anguish of a jilted lover. It’s enough to make one wonder what a Bridgerton bold enough to break from Julia Quinn’s source material could have been.

Instead, we get a Bridgerton that’s determined to stick to the plan, even if it looks less exciting now than it might have once. In a break from its usual angst, one of this season’s romantic subplots eschews torment entirely. Francesca (Hannah Dodd), the third Bridgerton sister, makes her debut into society with no interest in falling head over heels — only in finding an appropriate partner who might be able to provide her with peaceful, quiet contentment. Her mother (Ruth Gemmell) is skeptical, wanting more for her daughter. But Francesca pushes back. “Not every attachment must be dramatic and hard fought,” she argues. She speaks like someone who’s seen this story too many times already, and isn’t especially eager to play it all over again.

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