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It was a TIME in Bridgerton discourse last week and so I feel I must address the conversation around the conversation before diving into my full thoughts re: Polin. Strap in, this review is not short! Also, if you're interested in my blow-by-blow (sadly, not a double entendre) reactions to S3, you can find them over on Threads or in this Instagram highlight.
At the outset, I do want to say that I think it's wonderful that Bridgerton is getting so much attention and that so many people feel so passionately about this story. It reveals the real thirst for and relevance of historical romance as a genre. So, even though things have gotten more than a little toxic in the discourse post-S3, I don't want to lose sight of this win for histroms. To this point, I think a lot of the in-fighting among fans stems from so many people feeling like this show is their only chance to see a historical romance adapted with this big of a budget and for such a large audience. Therefore, there is a lot of pressure for Bridgerton to be everything to everyone. This hunger is, of course, too much demand for one show to realistically satisfy and I think viewer emotions would be less heightened if everyone felt like there would be other opportunities for histrom adaptations down the road. Right now, at least, it doesn't really feel like there are going to be tons of other adaptations, so I think that's where a lot of the angst over the show comes from, especially from readers. It feels very zero sum and reflects the way romance readers have not been served by Hollywood generally.
Second, for book fans looking for a more faithful adaptation (a group that has, at different points, included myself!), I understand why Bridgerton can be challenging. (I'm still not over what they did to the bee scene in season 2, for instance!!). And I think it is, unfortunately, obvious that the writers adapting the show do not see putting a genre romance on screen as their primary goal, but instead want to use Julia Quinn's source material to craft a soap opera/historical romantic dramedy. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, but it's understandably disappointing to readers who love historical romance and were looking forward to seeing their genre brought to Netflix.
For these reasons, I am usually sympathetic to book readers' frustrations with Bridgerton. It's hard to see source material you care about adapted not only into another medium but essentially out of its original genre. It makes for a strange viewing experience and I think it's especially hard on romance readers because of the wider cultural derision for their books. Romance readers have long seen their genre derided and disrespected and so it's extra difficult, I think, to see the Bridgerton storylines stripped from their genre context and used as the basis for a TV show in another mode. It can feel like what gets left on the cutting room floor is the romance genre itself--and that hurts when a) romance is often a cultural punching bag, and b) this adaptation is supposed to be (and, of course, largely, is) this big victory for the genre.
Nevertheless, the negative reaction from parts of the Bridgerton fandom to the Michaela reveal (i.e. the decision to give Francesca a sapphic love story instead of her original cis-het narrative) was really disappointing. I can understand how, for those invested in the story from the book, this change might take a moment to process, because gender and sexuality are important to identity and so this shift will undoubtedly change these characters to a certain degree. But I think the assumption that this change means Francesca/Michaela cannot deliver the same beats or a similar emotional punch just because it is now a queer love story is problematic. We read and consume retellings all the time and I think this shift can and should be seen in a similar vein; adaptation is a form of retelling and Francesca's show story will be a queering of its original. As I said above, I'm sympathetic to Bridgerton readers who feel like the romance is getting lost in the shuffle on the show, but that issue has nothing to do with this particular shift. I would encourage book readers who feel upset by the change to ask themselves if they really think Masali Baduza can't deliver a super-hot-and-angsty portrayal of the I'm-a-grieving-rake-in-love-with-my-best-friend's-widow storyline. Because I believe she totally can and will! I'm so excited myself to watch this new rendition of the story and think it's a change with a lot of promise. I loved what we saw of Baduza's performance and I think Francesca/Michaela has huge potential to be spicy AF. And if this pairing does fall flat (in whole or in part), it won't be because the story is a sapphic one but due to the issues that bedevil the show generally.
That said, while I was disappointed to see so many anti-Michaela takes, I also dislike how, in some of the backlash to the backlash, there is an impulse to view any critique of Bridgerton as a) objecting to the attempts the show is making to diversify the original stories, or b) being needlessly hateful to something that is meant to be fun/light-hearted, non-serious, etc. I am a critic by trade and so it is my firm belief that NOTHING is above critique; in fact, I see critique as, most often, an act of love for a piece of art, or, at the very least, the genre or medium to which that piece of art belongs. I have seen, at times, the debate over this season polarizing into an all-or-nothing proposition, where you have to love every decision the show makes or otherwise you're against the diversification of Quinn's stories. But many viewers appreciate what the show is trying to do in updating the books and have valid criticisms of the choices it makes in the course of this adaptation. No piece of art is perfect--and Bridgerton has, to my eye, many notable weak points worthy of critique.
Which brings me to my fairly simple S3 takeway. While the discourse around the adaptation and the introduction of Michaela is complex, my critique of S3 is really straightforward. This season was supposed to be about Penelope and Colin, but they were drowned out by endless subplots. The decision to have Colin find out that Penelope was Lady Whistledown after their engagement sucked a lot of the flavor out of their romance. It wasn't clear why Colin started seeing Pen differently outside of a light makeover and conversations with her about courtship. If that is all it took to spark his attraction to her, why did he ignore her for so long? In the books, he begins to see her differently and then, when he finds out that she is Whistledown, it brings about a crisis of attraction, anger, and protectiveness that pushes their relationship into a new stage. In the absence of this revelation prior to their commitment and the consummation of their relationship, the writing of their romance for the show felt, to me, a bit bland. I didn't understand why they were perfect for each other or even why they loved each other, especially why he suddenly loved her. The characterization of both Penelope and Colin felt scattered and tentative. I was especially irritated by the milquetoast writing of their romance because I couldn't help but suspect it stemmed, in part, from the showrunners' anxiety about having a plus-size leading lady--and it felt, to me at least, that they were keeping it extra vanilla for that reason. They didn't take any of the risks of S1 and S2--and it's hard not to feel that trepidation about selling a non-thin heroine to a mass audience had something to do with this decision. While I totally respect that many viewers still felt represented by Nicola Coughlan and her romance with (putatively) conventionally attractive Luke Newton, I couldn't escape the feeling that we were getting a relatively bloodless version of their love story. I don't even mean here just the absence of spicy scenes but, rather, even more than that, the lack of dynamics giving texture and specificity to their romance. Kate and Anthony's scene in the study where he tells her India is not "far enough" and that he is hanging onto his honor by a thread had more electricity and passion than Colin and Penelope's mirror/chaise encounter.
And then there was Luke Newton. I caught a little criticism myself on Threads for being dissatisfied with his performance and I am really not trying to be harsh. I think with good writing, he could have gotten the job done; I think as a casting choice, in many ways, he looks the part and makes sense. But he does not yet have the acting chops to elevate weak writing (unlike Simone Ashley, Jonathan Bailey, and Nicola Coughlan, who totally do and did) and therefore his performance felt very one note. There wasn't enough of a difference between his insincere rake persona and his supposedly genuine attraction to Penelope; the tone shift was not as marked as it needed to be. As my friend Shavi at @purely.romantic has said, Newton is at his best when he is acting with Coughlan. She definitely makes him better. But, in my opinion, the weak writing and his relatively weak performance compounded each other and I struggled to feel invested in the Polin romance, even though I was quite excited for it going into S3.
In short, I wanted stronger choices in the portrayal of the Polin romance, which is one reason I am heartened by the introduction of Michaela. I like that this gender swap feels like a CHOICE and I am hopeful that it might re-center romance on the show. This switch-up will require, at the very least, some heightened attention on Francesca's love story (presumably), whenever her season does come about.
Overall, even though S3 wasn't my favorite, I do enjoy watching the show, and, more than that, I'll always be invested in this big-budget, high-profile staging of a historical romance. I think Benedict's season (the presumed S4 arc) promises to be better and that Luke Thompson is ready for prime time. Now we just have to wait two years to see if that prediction comes true.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of talk on Threads about the current state of the historical romance genre. Specifically, is it experiencing a (potentially fatal) decline in popularity? The above from Cat Sebastian is just one of many great posts on the topic. The discussion began (I think) when Harper St. George noted how her daughter told her she would sell more books if she dropped the "historical" from the description of her romances. As the conversation continued, Sarah MacLean chimed in and encouraged romantasy readers to pick up historicals because of the similarities between the subgenres. Adriana Herrera expressed frustration that historical romance is declared "over" when BIPOC authors have just started to thrive in the genre. Many readers expressed sadness that historical romance seemed to be on the wane. Faye Delacour made this hilarious video that recapped many of these points.


But ~is~ historical romance dying? Well, as often happens with internet discourse, many people disputed this characterization! A few authors and readers pointed out that historicals have a large built-in readership and that while they aren't wildly popular right now a la romantasy, it is still a solid evergreen genre. Others argued that the anxiety about the genre dying has to do with the fact that historical romances aren't blowing up on TikTok like romantasy and dark romance, but that doesn't mean the genre is losing its readership.


I agree with those who contend that reports of the death of historical romance have been greatly exaggerated, but I also think that the concern over the fate of historical romance is coming from somewhere, specifically the status of the histrom in traditional publishing. It does seem that historical romance IS on the decline (or, at the very least, undergoing a significant evolution) within traditional publishing. Put simply: big publishers are putting out fewer histroms than they did in the past and they don't appear to be investing in the genre in the way that they used to.


There are many reasons why this is happening, including the popularity of indie historical romance. Within the trad sphere, though, the changing position of romance generally, I think, has not necessarily benefited the historical subgenre. As ever, traditional publishers are under pressure to make the most profit possible out of each book, and that seems to have led to a change in how romance is situated in the market. Big publishers increasingly package and market romance to appeal to a general readership (see illustrated covers and the ever-murkier line between romance and women's fiction). This shift has not benefited historical romances, which are less easily disguised as general fiction. I think trad publishers are increasingly optimistic that readers who don't necessarily self-identify as romance readers will nevertheless buy and enjoy romances, given the success of writers like Emily Henry, Sarah J. Maas, etc. A contemporary romance is much easier to present ambiguously whereas a historical romance, still carrying the signifiers of the bodice ripper, is harder to present as anything other than what it is: a romance. (Of course, there should be no stigma attached to romance reading, but that's another topic altogether...)


Do these market forces mean that the genre is really on the decline? I don't think so! First, indie historical romance authors continue to kill it. Second, as the popularity of Bridgerton and Jane Austen adaptations show, readers and viewers still very much love and seek out historical romance content in all of its forms. Even within traditional publishing, this reality means historical romance will always be there and, yes, be popular.


This point reminds me why we can't lose sight of the fact that readers seek out historicals because they are HISTORICAL. I don't think we need to or should, as authors and readers, primarily pitch historicals through their similarities to other subgenres. Readers have long sought out historical fiction (a genre that in the UK, at least, really took off during the Regency era itself!!) because there is something particularly satisfying about stories set in the past. Historical fiction has a direct bearing on the present because it is prelude; this element gives historical fiction unique power to speak to the present. As long as people yearn to read about the past and how people found happiness in it, historical romance will have a strong readership.

As usual with Bridgerton, I find myself torn between delight at seeing a historical romance dramatized for the big-budget screen and consternation at the choices made in that process. And Season 3 has the problems that have been with the series from the beginning, including its approach to race and colonialism (the brilliant Shavi recapped these issues this week on her Instagram @purely.romantic; you can read her amazing analysis here) and its choice to willfully ignore the conventions of the romance genre from which its source material springs.
That said, when I first finished Part One, I thought it was pretty solid! I was relieved that, unlike Season 2, the writers didn't leave amazing pieces of priceless IP (specifically, Anthony trying to suck bee venom from Kate's cleavage) on the cutting room floor. I loved seeing Nicola Coughlan as the romantic lead; I think she is perfectly cast as Penelope. And I had to admire the narrative tension that they sewed up by the end of Part One. We are left with Penelope and Colin in love and engaged, but with one giant problem between them: Colin hates Lady Whistledown and Penelope, of course, IS Lady Whistledown.
However, as I continued to reflect, I felt less sanguine. Whereas I had problems with the writing in Season 2, the romance felt more palpable. Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey have amazing chemistry, yes, but they were also given a tauter emotional dynamic within which to work. They were in forced proximity because of his pursuit of her younger, more eligible sister, and their scenes together (the lust! the hatred!) just popped off the screen. As a viewer, their conflict was palpable: they're not supposed to want each other, they don't even particularly like each other, and yet they want to tear each other's clothes off.
This first part of Season 3, however, felt a bit more...aimless. Colin and Penelope are a friends to lovers story, but I missed why their relationship pivots. How does Colin come to see Penelope differently and why? I don't feel that I can really tell you. She gets a makeover and announces she wants to find a husband, I guess!! I will admit that personal preferences comes in here, too. Luke Newton is a less able actor IMO than Jonathan Bailey or Regé-Jean Page and he wasn't fully selling Colin to me as the romantic lead. He still felt like the love interest from the B-plot romance whereas Nicola was very much the leading lady.
Lastly, I am having major issues with how they are handling Pen as Lady Whistledown and her character generally. First, in the books, Penelope is almost thirty and LW is full of wry, Jane Austen-esque observations about her social milieu. Additionally, Pen has gained a lot of maturity since she first met Colin and, while she still has a crush on him, she has also found a sense of self-actualization as an unmarried woman with a certain measure of freedom. In the show, though, Penelope is presented as far more abject socially and it feels like she is being constantly humiliated! She isn't just a wallflower; it feels like we are constantly being told that everyone thinks she is unattractive, not charming, and just generally embarrassing. I can understand if Penelope FEELS this way, and she does in many ways in the books, too, but there you understand that this perception isn't necessarily reality. In the book, it felt totally believable that observant, intelligent Pen could be LW. In the show, it feels impossible that the bon mots proffered by the older woman voiceover could come from the young lady very much actively living and learning (and often crying!!) and struggling to keep her head above water in this world. The cool calm of LW is diametrically opposed to Pen's emotional volatility. Furthermore, the idea that the Pen we see on screen could talk about herself with the detachment that LW uses in regard to's just not believable. In the books, you get the sense that Pen is largely not talking about herself as LW, because she isn't a major player in the marriage mart. But in the show, LW is constantly talking about Penelope, which makes Penelope seem kind of unhinged? It makes Colin's coming anger with Pen over her identity as LW feel justified whereas, in the books, Pen was just a badass and you just want Colin to get with the program. But, mostly, Pen as LW felt baffling to me here and a dynamic that they just weren't pulling off.
I am hoping my enjoyment increases as I continue watching, though. And, despite my complaints, I will be glued to the screen the moment Part Two is out.
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