W

hen Lady Whistledown’s voiceover finally kicks in during the opening episode of Bridgerton’s second season, asking “Did you miss me?” like an 18th century Gossip Girl, the answer will surely be a resounding ‘yes’ from the Regency romance’s millions of fans.

In the year and a half since we first cordially made the acquaintance of the Bridgerton family, their friends, rivals and love interests – most notably the Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page, whose performance earned him the inevitable Bond rumours that trail after every good-looking British actor in a well-received TV show – the series has become an international phenomenon. Before it was dethroned by Squid Game last summer, Bridgerton was the most popular series in Netflix’s history, watched by 82 million viewers in its first 28 days. That feat was surely helped along not just by salacious headlines about its racier-than-your-average-period-drama sex scenes, but by its inclusive, colour-conscious casting.

Expectations for the latest instalment, then, are higher than one of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel)’s towering headpieces – albeit slightly tempered by the absence of Page, who announced his decision to leave the Ton behind last year. Can the series recapture that initial spark without one of its most swooned-over characters?

The Bridgerton clan is back – this time the focus is on Anthony (Jonathan Bailey, far right)

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The answer, for the most part, is yes, just about. Don’t expect round two to deviate too heavily from the previous formula, though (it’s a truth universally acknowledged if two characters vehemently profess their disgust for one another… spoiler alert, they secretly fancy each other!) – and brace yourself for a distinctly more PG tone, for the opening episodes at least. Only the first six of the eight episodes were provided to reviewers, so things may well heat up considerably in the, erm, climactic parts, but those six are remarkably chaste in comparison to Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and the Duke’s escapades last time around: think scorching looks and meaningful hand-holding in place of anything more X-rated.

Based on the second book in Julia Quinn’s series, The Viscount Who Loved Me, the new episodes shift the emphasis to Jonathan Bailey’s Anthony Bridgerton, the family’s rakish eldest sibling, who spent most of S1 dishing out rubbish romantic advice to sister Daphne, shagging opera singers and generally being a terrible role model. Now, though, he is ready to turn over a new, more boring leaf: he wants to find a wife who is “tolerable, dutiful, [with] suitable hips for childbearing and half a brain”. Swoon!

Sisters Edwina and Kate Sharma, played by Charithra Chandran and Simone Ashley

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A prime candidate is Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) who, along with her mother Mary (Shelley Conn) and elder sister Kate (Simone Ashley), has returned to London from India, where the aristocratic Mary settled after falling for – shocked pause – a common clerk. Named the new Diamond of the season, Edwina is beautiful, clever and sweet-natured, but Anthony has undeniable chemistry with Kate. That she’s willing to get her skirts muddy while tramping through the countryside or retrieving a croquet ball from a squelchy bog is proof that she’s a spirited Regency heroine in the Lizzy Bennet mode; their first verbal sparring match occurs when their paths cross on an early morning horse ride, when she is scandalously unchaperoned.

Still, Anthony seems set on marrying the younger, apparently more pliable of the sisters, despite the protestations of his sister Daphne, now Duchess of Hastings, that he should marry for love, not duty (Dynevor’s role is reduced this time around, with Daphne acting as advice-giver and confidante, a commentator on the action rather than a catalyst). This can all be traced back to  – sound the prestige TV klaxon – a trauma in his past, laid out in digitally de-aged flashbacks that crank up the melodrama. Edwina is no pushover, though, and the stakes of the love triangle are raised by Ashley and Chandran’s on-screen sisterhood; their sibling bond is one of the show’s more convincing relationships.

Kate and Anthony have undeniable chemistry

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Elsewhere, the show’s ensemble is settling into an easy, reassuring rhythm, with their ‘b’ plots given more breathing space than before. After managing to dodge her society debut, proto-feminist Eloise (Claudia Jessie) still gets many of the best lines, and has now discovered Mary Wollstonecraft. Younger Bridgerton bros Benedict (Luke Thompson) and Colin (Luke Newton) get some nice comic moments. The latter has recently returned from his Grand Tour, the 19th century precursor of the Gap Yah, and won’t stop banging on about Grecian ruins – when he’s not putting Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) firmly in the friend zone.

She has plenty of other worries to distract her, though. Unmasked to viewers as the writer behind Lady Whistledown’s papers at the end of series one, she’s forced to put her journalistic efforts on hiatus following the death of her father, until the family’s mourning period has passed. Her decision to bring Whistledown back is not without risks. Not only has best friend Eloise decided to devote herself to unearthing the mystery of Lady W’s real identity (though she gets somewhat distracted along the way by the good-looking printer’s assistant she recruits as a source but ends up swapping left-wing pamphlets with) – the formidable Queen Charlotte is on the case, too. One of her royal schemes to smoke out Whistledown has shades of Wagatha Christie.

Queen Charlotte is determined to discover Lady Whistledown’s identity

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The set piece scenes, from a ball at the Bridgertons’ country pile to a garden party at the palace, accompanied once again by orchestral renditions of pop songs, remain dazzling – the show’s production and costume design is perhaps even more lavish than the first time around (a jaunt to the races in episode two is a real visual feast). The simple shape of the plot is a little less arresting, but there’s comfort in its familiar arc – and who watches period romances looking for unsettling plot twists? Bridgerton remains gorgeously frothy, deeply silly and highly watchable – its legions of fans will eat this up. The honeymoon period might be over, but this romance looks like it will go the distance.

Bridgerton series two is on Netflix from March 25



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