“Bridgerton” S2 brings back a “world of excess decadence and beauty and glamor,” showrunner Chris Van Dusen tells IndieWire.
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While the standard-issue escapist costume drama grows a tad long in the tooth (see “Downton Abbey”), one recent romp in the lives of the entitled rich still feels fresh and smart. Credit for the continued success of “Bridgerton” Season 2 (Netflix) goes to Shondaland vet showrunner Chris Van Dusen, who shoved aside his anxiety about meeting expectations set by Season 1 and forged ahead with his diverse writers room to follow the second Julia Quinn marital romance, “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” focused on the eldest son, Lord Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey).
“It was important going into the season that all the magic from Season 1, everything we fell in love with, was still there,” Van Dusen said on the phone. “But I wanted to bring it back in a new and exciting way, still immersed in that world of excess decadence and beauty and glamor, which is set up to bring in new characters and new romances, season after season.”
The showrunner needn’t have worried. Twenty-eight days after the series’ March 25 debut, Netflix met with Shonda Rhimes and Van Dusen to go over the numbers. Word was that Season 2 had performed even better than Season 1. Sure enough: the show broke Season 1’s 28-day record with 627 million hours viewed, marking the most popular English-language series in Netflix history. Emmy nominations morning on July 12 will reveal if the drama series outperforms Season 1’s eleven nominations (including Best Drama Series) and one win (Character Hairstyle).
For his last stint as “Bridgerton” showrunner, Van Dusen tried to create Season 2 “in a bubble,” he said, “trying to tune out the amazing reception that the show got. But everywhere I looked, I saw something about the show: a meme, SNL parodies, an amazing musical on TikTok. We were embracing the pressure and expectations to make the best show we could.”
Van Dusen and his mostly female writers, using the novel as a starting point, outlined and broke down each episode, putting the characters through their paces. “This is a diverse world on ‘Bridgerton,’” said Van Dusen, “with many voices and characters from all walks of life. The show looks like the world we are living in today. We wanted that for the writers room as well. They are all ages, backgrounds, levels of experience. Some people are diehard fans of the book, others are new to the books and the world. This all works to tell expansive stories from multiple points of view. Having myriad voices and opinions and perspectives is what makes a show great.”
The showrunner commands the writers room. “At the beginning, we start out together discussing the season’s goal posts, the huge moments we want to get to,” he said. “It’s about getting more granular every single day. We start with a birds-eye-view of the second season, and get down the smallest of details of each episode. We break the outline together, we write the script together. The scripts all go through my computer and out into the world of production.”
The characters drive the narrative. “I challenge myself and the writers,” said Van Dusen. “We put these characters in the most unimaginable and impossible situations and watch how they get out of them. That’s what I like to watch on screen: it’s compelling, riveting, and engrossing.”
Liam Daniel / Netflix
To the colorful fantasy universe that Van Dusen created by adding to Quinn’s conventionally white British world the real-life biracial Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who enabled people of color to thrive as titled nobility with wealth and land holdings, come the sisters Edwina and Kate Sharma (Charithra Chandran and Simone Ashley), who enter society under the tutelage of Queen’s favorite Lady Danbury (Adjoah Andoh). Anthony sets his cap for pliant, eager-to-please younger sister Edwina, but soon feels pulled toward her headstrong older sibling, Kate, who enjoys beating him at Pall Mall and rides her horse at full gallop. Both try to suppress their inconvenient attraction. Kate wants her sister to make an advantageous match, and Anthony doesn’t want emotions to get in the way at all.
Critics who admired Season 1 were also transported by Season 2, although they noted the absence of breakout sex object Regé-Jean Page, who signed for just one go-round. Van Dusen cast for chemistry and made sure that Bailey and Ashley brought back the heat. At first “Sex Education” breakout Ashley wasn’t available, but pandemic delays worked in the schedule’s favor. “We needed an actress who could portray the fierce, take-no-prisoners side of Kate Sharma,” said Van Dusen. “We needed her to be vulnerable as well. That’s Simone: you root for her, want her to put Anthony Bridgerton in his place, and want her to fall in love.”
This time, Van Dusen prolonged the sexual tension between the enemies-turned-lovers as long possible, almost straining credulity. But when Anthony and Kate finally succumb to their lusty desires, the steamy sex is worth the wait. “It’s a different story and different characters, but our approach to intimacy and the sex scenes was the same for Season 2,” said Van Dusen. “We don’t do a sex scene for the sake of it, and never will. It has to have a larger purpose and tell a story, whether it’s about Daphne and her awakening, or in Season 2, delayed gratification. That can be just as sexy as anything else: the stolen glances, the fingers grazing against each other, the powerful looks. Their chemistry is electric and palpable. Like the eight delicious romance novels, we wanted the experience of the show to be like reading a romance novel: things are sexy and dangerous and fun. We take the audience on a wild ride at times.”
In creating this alternate Regency setting, Van Dusen relied on Costume Designer Sophie Canale to build on the stellar work of last season’s veteran Ellen Mirojnick. Canale brought an even more vivid palette, thanks to the introduction of the colorful Sharma sisters from India. Defiantly period inaccurate, “Bridgerton” continues to be a feast for the eyes.
The creation of Queen Charlotte, who adds dimension, diversity, and vivid color to a rigidly stratified society, is Van Dusen’s pride and joy. He’s thrilled that Shondaland is spinning off a series for the Queen (he will not be involved). “We introduced her in the pilot, she’s not part of the book,” he said. “I knew going into this project I wanted a fresh spin on the books and the genre itself. I wanted the show to be the period piece I wanted to see, and it wasn’t going to look or feel like any other. In cracking this series the key was making a beautiful multi-cultural ethnic-hued world. The Queen provided an approach to race on the show. We built the world from there, including all the women who hold the power, especially Queen Charlotte, Lady Whistledown, and Lady Danbury.”
But the downside of any court dominated by strict social mores is the danger of being at the whim of a powerful royal, and the ultimate must-to-avoid, being frozen out of society. This happens when the Bridgertons and Sharmas are buried in scandal. In one great scene, Lady Danbury and Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmel) cannot figure out how to extricate their families from being ostracized; all their best-laid plans are tumbling down. “It’s a human moment, my favorite of the season,” said Van Dusen. “Here they are in an impossible situation with nothing they can do about it. It’s about human folly.”
In Season 2, the rapier pen of Penelope Featherington, aka gossipmonger Lady Whistledown (Nicola Coughlan), continues to wreak havoc on the court, as Penelope’s inquisitive best pal Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) moves closer to unveiling her identity, and Penelope makes tough choices about what to reveal to the world at large. That brings the two friends to a terrible reckoning. “The fight between Penelope and Eloise is brutal and devastating, as I wanted it to be,” said Van Dusen. “The confrontation between them was a long time coming. Penelope is stripped of everything, she has lost her best friend, her crush, and her alter ego. I’m fascinated to figure out what’s next, as she picks up her pen again in the final moments.”
Next up: Whatever that turns out to be, Van Dusen won’t have anything to do with it. As he looks in the rear view on “Bridgerton,” he moves on to consulting executive producer status, available to help when needed, as a new showrunner takes over on Season 3, which is moving on to “Bridgerton” Book Four, “Romancing Mr. Bridgerton.” This time they are skipping forward to the Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) and Penelope Featherington romance. “I did a lot of work setting these characters up and creating the worlds,” said Van Dusen. “I’m excited to see what happens. It blows my mind that I was able to create this franchise.”
Now that he is free to pursue other projects, the writer is adapting Adam Silvera’s young adult novel “They Both Die At the End,” which is in development with E-One, about two teenage boys who find out that they both have one day left to live. “It’s such an amazing queer romance,” he said. “There are a few other things I am not allowed to talk about.”
“Bridgerton” is streaming now on Netflix.