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What took him so long? Colin finally likes Penelope back in 'Bridgerton' season 3

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.
Liam Daniel
/
Netflix
Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.

Bridgerton is many things — successful, uneven, entertaining — but it is, critically, obedient to the requirements of particular romance tropes. In the first season, when Daphne married Simon, that was a "fake relationship." In the second season, when Anthony married Kate, that was "enemies to lovers." And now, in the first half of the third round of the show, we arrive at Colin and Penelope's story, the inevitable and durable "friends to lovers." (The second half of the season comes out in June; we'll discuss it then.)

We have known since the first season that Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) has a powerful crush on her good friend Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). And Colin was, how do we say ... "a barely sentient lamppost about it." As these episodes get underway, Penelope has white-knuckled her way through a couple of marriage-market seasons, but she's beginning to fear that the vagaries of inheritance will leave her at the mercy of her awful sisters, so she's eager to find a husband right away. Colin, meanwhile, is returning from a tour of Europe that seems to have been quite adventurous and carnal, and he finds himself the hottest thing since cucumber sandwiches when he hits the ton. Penelope, however, is not so happy to see him, since she overheard him at a party last season clarifying to his obnoxious friends that he would never — never, never, ever — think of courting her.

As they try to reconcile, the two hit upon a plan in which Colin will help her learn charm in order to appeal to men, although everyone is very vague on what this actually means, and we don't really ever see him do it. (Also Penelope is very charming already! Pipe down, Colin.) Penelope also gives herself what every romance watcher or reader will recognize as the eye-opening makeover, which has turned so many alleged mousy wallflowers into bombshells. Will Colin begin to see her differently? Will seeing other men respond to her differently awaken ... feelings?

The answers to these questions are obvious, as is the ultimate outcome. (Admittedly, there would be some appeal to seeing Penelope tell him something along the lines of "you snooze, you lose, buster" and go off with some very hot man who owns several castles. But that would be a different story.) As always, it's the execution that matters.

Does Colin measure up?

The best thing the season has going for it is Nicola Coughlan, who has been winning and funny since the first season. Penelope is one of Bridgerton's most compelling characters, not only because of her pining for Colin, but because of her exploits as the secret gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, a side hustle that has fractured her relationship with her best friend (and Colin's sister) Eloise. Any sensible watcher wants the best for Penelope, which is why it would be easier to invest in the season if Colin had a little more ... oomph.

In the books on which Bridgerton is based, you eavesdrop on the characters' thoughts, and so you get glimpses of Colin's changing feelings about Penelope. But here, he appears at first to be led by two primary motivations: sympathy (bordering on pity) for Penelope's inability to find a husband, and guilt because she overheard him being a jerk with his friends. These are quite difficult emotions from which to make a romance, because neither really has anything to do with feelings about her. A couple of meaningful looks — you know, meaningful looks — do not convincingly carry a guy from pity to lust.

And ... how best to say this? It's not clear that Colin, despite being a sought-after Bridgerton brother, is good enough for her. Penelope is a clever, passionate, talented writer with glorious red hair and a secret life. Colin is ... a handsome man who did some journaling on his vacation. What does Colin care about? What are Colin's interests? Does he have hobbies, other than being swooned at by women (and hating Lady Whistledown)? Bridgerton might have better served the season if it had spent a little more time developing Colin as a person apart from the fact that Penelope admires him, and explaining why she still does. Honestly, "I will give you free lessons to improve your personality" is not the traditional way to make it up to somebody that you said unkind things about her to your jerk friends.

This is not to say the season is disappointing on the whole or that it lacks the qualities that have made the show interesting in the past. To its credit, Bridgerton brings body type into its concept of diversifying romance leads, up to a point. Coughlan is shorter and curvier than the other women who have had steamy scenes on the show, and unlike the book, the show does not mention her losing a bunch of weight between her initial friendship with Colin and his realization of her appeal. (Whew.) Instead, a lot is accomplished with more elegant and sexier styling and new colors to replace the citrus tones her mother has long forced on all her girls, which never flattered Pen's red hair and super-pale complexion.

Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte.
Laurence Cendrowicz / Netflix
/
Netflix
Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte.

The season definitely sprawls a bit; there may be a little too much going on. There is the romance; there is a side plot with Colin's sister Francesca also entering the marriage market; there is Eloise's busted friendship with Penelope and her new friendship with the no-good Cressida Cowper; there is Lady Featherington's struggle to keep her estate; there are Penelope's sisters trying to get pregnant; there is the somewhat opaque case of Benedict Bridgerton (the show constantly seems on the verge of revealing something about him). Of course, the Queen remains fixated on unmasking Lady Whistledown. On top of all that, Anthony and Kate are still around, preparing to take over as the ruling couple of the Bridgerton home and getting naked now and then in order to tide everybody over through the early episodes when the primary romance is not underway.

It can all feel a tiny bit shaggy, no pun intended. But on the whole, the cast carries it off, and it is impossible not to root for Penelope. We may wonder occasionally if she could do better, but she clearly does not believe she could. And that's what her happy ending is all about.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.