I vaguely considered writing something about Bridgerton eighteen months ago because it was the big thing in romance at the time and it seemed like every Ambitious Mama and Determined Batchelor on the internet was required to have a take on it, and I kind of didn’t have one.
Or rather I did, but it was a take that season one by itself didn’t really provide enough material to talk about in my customary level of rambling, discursive detail, because that take was “okay, but what the hell are they going to do for Season Two?”
Welp, season two has happened, so I’ve got an answer now, and it’s an answer I find genuinely fascinating.
This post is called “Metabridgerton” because in a lot of ways this post isn’t actually about Bridgerton at all. It’s more about the specific challenges of adapting a particular kind of romance series to the screen, the specific decisions the showrunners appear to have made in adapting this specific series, and why I—on balance—can understand pretty much all of them even when they represent quite major deviations from the books.
This is probably going to get long, so it’s going to be in subheadings.
Part One: “Okay, But What the Hell are they Going to Do For Season Two?”
If I was more on-form I’d give each of these subheadings a little in-character intro like it’s an edition of Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers but I feel like I’d get halfway through the post, then realise that I’d put way too much effort into a not-very-amusing bit. Plus This Author suspects that the distinctive style of those interstitial fragments is actually way harder to imitate than it seems.
Where was I?
Back in 2020 and 2021 the whole damned pop culture media landscape went wild for Bridgerton. The internet was flooded with spoonilingus memes, everybody was swooning over Simon and Daphne and their not-your-mama’s-costume-drama sexcapades, and it was soon announced that the show had been picked up for a run of—if I am remembering correctly—eight million and five series.
But even at the time, I remember looking at the buzz surrounding the show and thinking to myself “okay, but how are a TV-watching audience going to deal with the fact that season two isn’t about Simon and Daphne?”
Obviously for book readers, that wouldn’t be a problem. But, and I’m in no way trying to undersell the success that Julia Quinn had already achieved with the series way back in the early 2000s or the passion the book-based fandom has for the world and its characters, TV is a different animal. It has a longer reach, a different style of storytelling, and ultimately a different appeal to different people.
The Bridgerton book series is (and I probably don’t need to remind my audience of this, but bear with me) a style of serial fiction that is very well understood within the romance genre. The long-running series following a single large extended family as they each sequentially find love with different partners is a sort of genre meta-trope that exists across subgenres. You get it in historical with sprawling aristocratic clans. You get it in small-town contemporaries with no-less-sprawling modern families. You even get it in paranormals with shadowy brotherhoods of vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural beings.
But you don’t get it in mainstream media.
It’s true that with the advent of streaming dividing television up into tens of thousands of tiny laser-targeted microaudiences TV has had room to become more experimental, and there are shows that definitely do break up the usual formulas of serial television. There are anthology shows like American Horror Story where each edition is a new story with a new cast of characters. There’s procedural crime shows like The Sinner where each new season is a new case in a new context and only the detective is constant. But there has never, as far as I know, been a TV show that has tried to do that quintessentially genre romance structure of “consistent cast of characters, each one gets a one-season love story in which they are the main character” and I was genuinely intrigued to see how they were going to handle it.
It turns out the answer was “well… it’s complicated”.
Part Two: Desperately Seeking Simon
I was genuinely confused when the announcement came out that Regé-Jean Page wasn’t coming back for season two of Bridgerton.
But unlike much of the rest of the internet, what confused me wasn’t that he wouldn’t be reprising the role of Simon Basset, it was that anybody realistically expected that he would.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved his turn as Simon in the first series. I would have thought it was great to see him come back in season two. But I could completely understand why an actor who had played the romantic lead in a highly successful TV drama in 2020 wouldn’t necessarily be super-duper keen to come back and play the romantic lead’s sister’s husband in a drama in 2022.
Also, looking at his IMDB page, apparently his next major project is the new Dungeons and Dragons movie and I am fucking here for it.
Regé-Jean-Pagegate highlighted, for me, one of the first big problems of adapting the Bridgerton-style family romance for modern serial television. One of the huge draws of that kind of series, for people who are used to the genre, is that once you’ve read character A’s love story in book one (or, I suppose, in Bridgerton’s case, read character D’s love story in book one with character A’s story being reserved for book two) you get to then see character A and character A’s love interest being happily enrelationshipped (usually married, but not always, it depends on subgenre) in the background of character B’s story.
And in a book series, you can do that. Because in a book series, not to put too fine a point on it, none of your characters are real people with careers to think about. A fictional duke is always going to be free to nip over to Aubrey Hall for a quick game of Pall Mall any time the plot demands it. A real actor, not so much.
The thing is, although I hadn’t really expected Simon and Daphne to come back for season two of Bridgerton (they’re only in one scene in the book, after all) I did definitely notice that he wasn’t there. Part of this is that while the Duke and Duchess of Hastings only really pop up once in the second Bridgerton novel, Daphne is in the second series of the show quite a lot, even having major plot-critical discussions with Antony about his marriage prospects. And there does come a point where the fact that she keeps showing up solo gets… notable. Especially because a huge part of the way the Bridgerton family is characterised in both the books and the show is that they don’t have the “technically married but live very separate lives” thing you might expect from typical aristocrats. And especially especially because in the first series you kind of got the impression that Simon and Antony were really good mates, so Simon’s absence in Antony’s moments of romantic and personal crisis really stands out.
Simon’s disappearance from Season 2 really does highlight a problem in converting the big-romance-family story structure to a medium where not everybody is going to want to come back and be in the background of another person’s love story. And the structure of Season 2 of Bridgerton does, I think, represent a genuine attempt to fix that problem. It’s just that fixing that problem involves switching things up in a way that neither TV viewers nor book readers were expecting.
Part Three: Romancing the Duke Who Loved An Offer From Sir Phillip When He Was On The Way To His Kiss
There are eight Bridgerton novels. There are probably going to be eight series of Bridgerton.
Whenever a TV show comes out that’s based on a book, you get timely articles released on all the usual pop-culture tracking sites with titles like “Ten Ways Series [X] Of [Thing You Like] Is Different From The Book!” and depending on the book and the show they’re sometimes quite interesting and sometimes they’re missing the elephant in the room.
For the first series of Bridgerton, those lists were quite interesting because when you got right down to it, the first series of Bridgerton was a pretty straight adaptation of The Duke and I. So if you wanted to write a listicle about book/show differences you had plenty of grist for your mill. You could go through the whole series and say “this bit is from the book, this bit isn’t, this bit kind of is, this bit is from a future book” and overall the two pieces of media were close enough that the comparison was reasonably meaningful.
For the second series of Bridgerton, every “ten differences” listicle should have begun “1: It’s a completely different story structured completely differently for a different medium with different expectations” and then just continued with “2-10: see 1.”
Unlike Regé-Jean Page, Jonathan Bailey and Simone Ashley are scheduled to come back for season three. More specifically, they’re coming back, and pretty much every news article that’s announced that they’re coming back is making that announcement with a quote from Simone Ashley which says “Kate and Anthony are just getting started”.
And I don’t think that’s spin. I think that’s literally true.
I mean obviously it’s also spin. This is one of the biggest shows on television and I’m sure everybody involved with it is very, very careful what they say to the press. But it’s spin that sums up exactly what works about Season 2 of Bridgerton and exactly what confused everybody about it.
The first season of Bridgerton was a pretty straightforward adaptation of The Duke & I. Yes, it deviates from the book considerably (the whole bit with the prince who is also, let’s not forget, Vigilante from Peacemaker and I love it is show-original) but ultimately it does tell the whole of Simon and Daphne’s story more or less exactly as it appears in the novel. It even has an epilogue in which she’s giving birth to their first child and they’re joyfully agreeing to continue the Bridgerton tradition of alphabetical naming. By the end of S1E8, Simon and Daphne’s story is absolutely, one hundred percent, definitely, done.
Which is … kind of probably a big part of why it didn’t really make sense for Regé-Jean Page to come back for season two?
The second season of Bridgerton, by contrast, is much more strongly an ensemble-focused light-hearted costume drama that is loosely united around a central story that is… kind of inspired by the first half of The Viscount Who Loved Me.
And I do get that there are people who are annoyed at the changes. I get that there are people who want to know what happened to the bee scene, I get that a whole lot of people miss the red hot Bridgerton sex, I get that the pacing of Anthony and Kate’s relationship felt incredibly weird to a lot of people (it did to me right up until the final episode). But the more I think about it the more I think all of that makes sense when you look carefully at the ways in which a visual-medium series in which each character is portrayed by a living human being is different from a written-medium series in which all the characters exist only in one person’s imagination.
I’ll admit that this might just be me reasoning in a circle and thinking myself into a corner, but I’m increasingly convinced that while the straight-adaptation, very intense romance, strong focus on the central couple strategy was exactly the right thing for the first series of Bridgerton, it would have simply become unsustainable as the show went on.
In a book series, for an audience that is used to the conventions of the genre, sure, you can sell people on couple A (okay, D) in the first book, then ask them to invest in couple B (or A) in the second book and C (or B) in the third. But television just doesn’t work that way.
The absence of Regé-Jean Page was a disappointment for everybody but I suspect that people who came to Bridgerton from a romance reading background were disappointed for a subtly different reason than people who came to the series from a TV background. To a romance audience, the disappointment is that you don’t get the callback to the first story, you don’t get to see Simon and Daphne in their happy ending, to be reminded that love is real and that happy ever after really does continue ever after.
To the TV audience, the disappointment is that the expectation set up by the first season of the show is that it was, on a fundamental level, about Simon and Daphne. But their story was definitely over in the first series. What TV audiences missed was specifically their intense sexual chemistry, their looks of naked carnal longing, and Regé-Jean Page licking a spoon. And none of that was coming back anyway.
But Kate and Anthony are just getting started. Like they’re literally just getting started. They won’t be the focus of the next series, or the series after, or the series after that, but they’ll still have story to tell because while series one of Bridgerton basically adapted the first book, it feels a lot like series 2-8 are intending to adapt all of the other books in a more complex and overlapping way.
Part Four: You Can Type This Shit, George, But You Sure Can’t Say It
I hesitated to use this subheading because I appreciate it sounds disparaging. For those who aren’t aware of the context, it’s something that Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the original set of Star Wars. It was actually, in context, almost certainly a joke, an actor who wasn’t especially experienced with the tropes of science fiction making a flippant complaint about the difficulty of knowing how to deliver lines like “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs”. But I’ve also always liked it as a pithy, if somewhat aggressive, summary of the differences between written and performed media.
Because actually, books are full of shit you can type but sure can’t say. And let’s be clear, I include my own books in that. Books are books. TV is TV. Movies are movies. Theatre is theatre. What works in one doesn’t work in the other.
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no bad adaptations. Of course sometimes adaptations make changes for bad reasons—to pander to an audience they underestimate, to placate censors who would pay less attention to a less popular medium, because the people making the adaptation didn’t actually understand the text they were adapting.
But a lot of the time, it’s none of those things. A lot of the time, an awful lot of the time, it’s because they’re taking out something you can type but you sure can’t say.
Towards the end of the second season of Bridgerton I found myself having two distinct, contradictory thoughts in very quick succession. The first was “you know, I really like Eloise and Benedict’s relationship” and the second was “hang on a second, I think they’ve only ever had three conversations.”
And I’ll admit I didn’t go back and check. I’m not keeping a score of how many times individual Bridgerton characters talk to each other. But what I did realise was that my sense that Eloise and Benedict had a good relationship that I liked came entirely from the fact that every time they have had a significant conversation it has been at night, sitting on the swings, with Eloise sitting on the right and Benedict coming in to sit on the vacant swing on the left. It’s very, very, very specific.
That, my friends, is the power of visual storytelling. In a little under sixteen hours of TV these two characters have shared probably less than ten minutes of total screen time, but the scenes they do share are framed so carefully that my eyes tell my brain to fill in the blanks, and it obligingly fills in a whole brother-sister relationship that never actually has to be on the screen at all.
But while visual storytelling enables some narrative beats that you can’t pull off in a written medium, it also has a tendency to make others fall flat.
Which brings us to the bee scene and the sex.
In the book The Viscount Who Loved Me, Kate and Anthony are married by halfway through. This, amongst other things, allows them to do proper Bridgerton-fucking for the other half of the book while Anthony grapples with his unshakeable belief in his own impending doom and Kate learns to accept that Anthony really is into her and isn’t just constantly wishing she was her sister.
But the reason they get married is specifically that they’re in the garden of Aubrey Hall after the Pall Mall game, and Kate is stung on the chest by a bee, and Anthony has so much residual trauma from his father’s death that he’s convinced this will kill her and tries to suck the poison out, meaning that he’s caught by multiple witnesses with his lips on Kate’s boobs and so he has to marry her or else she will be ruined.
This does kind of work in the book. But it kind of works in the book for reasons that are very strongly book specific. Firstly you’re in Antony’s head a lot of the time so the intensity and irrationality of his bee-fear is made a lot more explicit, while in the show you get a very strong sense that he’s carrying a lot of residual baggage because of his father’s sudden death but it’s a lot less, shall we say, bee-centric. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the books do a very good job of establishing expectations and signalling to a savvy reader the kinds of tropes and beats you can expect. And let’s face it, “you were caught in a compromising situation for slightly contrived reasons so now you must marry” is a classic for a reason.
The problem is that it’s a classic that’s also used in the first book.
In a written medium, that’s not a problem. Genre readers are generally likely to read widely within their genre, to be comfortable with tropes and be used to seeing the same ones more than once. But for a TV audience? That’s different. If you’re a TV viewer Bridgerton is relatively likely to be the only historical thing you’ve watched full stop. Worse, you’re also pretty likely to have done a rewatch of the first series directly before watching the second series. A repeated plot beat like that would stand out a mile.
In a book series, having two consecutive stories in which the hero and the heroine have to get married at the half-way point because they’re caught in a compromising position in a garden is fine. On TV I can’t help but think it would have looked really, really weird.
But of course that does mean you miss out on the Bridgerton sex scenes. Hell the reason “you have to get married for an, if we’re honest, slightly contrived reason” is a trope of the lighter kind of histrom in the first place is precisely because extra-marital sex is so socially taboo in the era that you kind of have to get the hero and heroine married if you want them to bang at all.
So I suspect the showrunners were caught between a bit of a rock and a hard place. And on balance I think they picked the right rock. Choosing to tell a slower-paced story in S2 might have jarred the audience initially, but at least it signalled that not every series was going to follow the same pattern, and on balance sacrificing the banging was probably a price worth paying. If every season was just a relentlessly single-focus story about the season’s chosen couple, the series could easily have put itself into a death spiral. Every season they’d have to build up a new couple, get them married early enough to have at least three episodes of wanton rumpy-pumpy and then, next season, ditch the people the audience liked to move on to somebody else but also try to somehow persuade the actors to stick around after they’ve already had the biggest story beats they’ll ever get.
And maybe they could have made that work. But I can completely see why they took things in a different direction.
Part Five: The Hero With A Thousand Faces
There is, I think, another reason that the showrunners of Bridgerton decided to effectively spin out the first half of the plot of The Viscount Who Loved Me for the whole season and that’s because the second half of the book is based almost entirely on Anthony and Kate’s personal internal conflicts and those conflicts are very grounded in who they are as characters. But who they are as characters in the book is actually very, very different from who they are as characters in the show.
And for Kate, since she only exists in season two, that’s very much a self-contained problem. For Anthony though, it’s more interesting, and I think highlights another unique challenge of translating this kind of story from one medium to another.
One of the coolest things about written fiction, especially about multi-viewpoint serial fiction, is that you have, well viewpoints. What’s normal to one character is outlandish to another. A character one person sees as a close friend another will see as a deadly enemy. And in romance, and most relevantly to these first two series of Bridgerton, a character one person sees as a beloved if slightly overbearing brother, another character will see as an indescribably handsome, sexually intimidating but darkly seductive rakehell.
But the thing is, on TV, you kind of only get to cast one actor, and that actor has to give a consistent performance.
A huge part of what made Season 1 of Bridgerton so explosive was… well… I’m going to go back to spoon-licking, because it’s iconic for a reason. Simon was every inch the male lead. He radiated sex, basically constantly, to the extent that he was literally going down on the cutlery. But the thing is, like the mid-season-compromising-position-in-a-garden trick you kind of only get to do that once. In the books, the Anthony of The Viscount Who Loved Me is every bit as much of a bad boy sex machine as the Simon of The Duke & I and it’s completely fine because books are written media and written media have viewpoint characters and obviously the book one version of Anthony isn’t presented as the kind of man who can make women wet by breathing near them because we only ever see him from the PoV of a male friend and his actual sister.
TV doesn’t work like that. We see Anthony in series one through the neutral lens of a film camera and we see him, ultimately, as a kind if somewhat overbearing man who cares deeply for his family. Who yearns for an escape but feels the bonds of his duty and his birthright keenly. He has a mistress, certainly, but he genuinely cares for her, and is hurt when she rejects him. If in the second season he pivoted to full alpha hero mode, eating out the tableware and wielding his sexuality as a weapon, it would have felt completely out of left field.
But this makes Anthony’s latter book arc unworkable on TV. You can’t have a reforming-a-rake arc when he’s not really a rake to begin with. And show!Anthony might be a bit high-handed at times but he’s nowhere near enough of an alpha jerk to convince himself that he shouldn’t love his wife because he might die young.
If Season Two of Bridgerton had stuck to the pacing of the book plot, sure we’d have had more fucking, but there would have been essentially no conflict in the second half of the season. Show!Anthony just isn’t the kind of guy to still be acting all no-I-shall-never-love-you after he’s married and since he’s very very rich, she’s very very sensible, and they’re both clearly super in love and super hot for each other, episodes 5-8 would just have been Kate and Anthony having good sex and being happy which would be cool to watch for a while but couldn’t really carry half a series of event television.
Part Six: In Which This Author Reaches a Conclusion
Season one of Bridgerton made me wonder what the hell they were going to do and then season two made me wonder what the hell they were doing, right up to the final episode where I had a lightbulb moment and saw how it all fit together.
The glib, summarised way I’d express it is this.
Series One was a direct adaptation of a single book into a single series of television. This was the right way to make a big splashy impact but wasn’t sustainable and created clear problems which season two inherited, most notable amongst them the absence of Regé-Jean Page (although even if he’d been there, it’s not liked he’d be able to lick any more spoons, he’s married now and his spoon-licking needs to be kept strictly within matrimony). To make the series work long-term, series two needed to represent a kind of course correction from being a set of standalone adaptations of stories that wouldn’t, if adapted independently, work cohesively in a television medium, into something that is more explicitly an ensemble drama in which the core narrative of the original stories provides a kind of framing device around which the whole thing is structured.
What I suspect, going forward, is that while each season will keep the core structure and pairing of the books there will be an increasing emphasis on setting up future stories and on continuing past stories, much as—for example—the saga of Lady Whisledown’s identity continued more or less straight over two seasons. We’re already in a situation where, for example, Penelope and Colin’s story has had explicit setup that has been building for two seasons (and may build for one more if they keep to book-order for the adaptation) and I’m fully expecting to get the next stage of Kate and Anthony’s relationship in Season 3 even if their story isn’t the primary focus. And I’m looking forward to it because while it had a slow build it did also wind up being super hot.
You do lose something by having the stories play out like this. By letting a single love story overspill the boundaries of its season (incidentally my favourite device in the whole of Bridgerton is the way they say “season” in a way that is clearly intended to have a double meaning as “social season” and “season of television”) you get a less self-contained, less intense and, assuming they more or less limit their characters to only boinking within or on the cusp of marriage, less rapacious story.
But you also, I think, get something a whole lot more interesting.