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Bridgerton Season 3: My Full Review


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.

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