Colin finally likes Penelope again: NPR

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.

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Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.

Liam Daniel/Netflix

Bridgerton It's a lot of things – successful, uneven, entertaining – but it is, critically, obedient to the demands of certain romantic tropes. In the first season, when Daphne married Simon, it was a 'fake relationship'. In the second season, when Anthony married Kate, they were “enemies to lovers.” And now, in the first half of the show's third round, we arrive at the story of Colin and Penelope, the inevitable and enduring “friends before lovers.” (The second half of the season comes out in June; we'll discuss it then.)

We've known since season one that Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) is in love with her good friend Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). And Colin was, how should we put this… “a barely conscious lamp post about it.” As these episodes open, Penelope has made her way through a few marriage market seasons, but she begins to fear that the vagaries of inheritance will leave her at the mercy of her terrible sisters, so she's eager to find a husband. immediately. Colin, meanwhile, returns from a tour of Europe that seems to have been quite adventurous and carnal, and finds that he is the tastiest thing since cucumber sandwiches when he reaches the barrel. Penelope isn't too happy to see him, however, as she overheard him at a party last season telling his obnoxious friends that he would never – never, ever – consider courting her.

While trying to reconcile, the two come up with a plan where Colin will help her learn charm to appeal to men, although everyone is very vague about what this actually means, and we never actually see him do it. (Penelope is also quite charming! Just sayin, Colin.) Penelope also gives herself what any romance watcher or reader will recognize as the eye-opening makeover that has turned so many would-be mouse wallflowers into bombshells. Will Colin see her differently? Will seeing other men react differently to her awaken… feelings?

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Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.

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Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington.

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The answers to these questions are obvious, as is the final outcome. (Granted, it would be appealing to see Penelope tell him something along the lines of “you sleep, you lose, broke” and go off with a very handsome man who owns several castles. But that would be another story.) As always, it's the execution that counts.

Does Colin meet the requirements?

The best thing the season has to offer is Nicola Coughlan, who has been winning and funny since the first season. Penelope is one of them Bridgerton's most compelling characters, not just because of her longing for Colin, but also because of her exploits as secret gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, a sideshow who has broken up her relationship with her best friend (and Colin's sister) Eloise. Any sensible viewer wants the best for Penelope, which is why it would be easier to invest in the season if Colin had a little more… grit.

In the books about Bridgerton is based, you listen to the thoughts of the characters, and in doing so you get a glimpse of Colin's changing feelings about Penelope. But here he seems to be guided primarily by two primary motivations: sympathy (bordering on pity) for Penelope's inability to find a husband, and guilt over hearing he was a jerk with his friends. These are pretty difficult emotions to turn into a romance because neither of them really have anything to do with feelings about her. A few meaningful glances – you know, meaningful looks – don't convincingly move a man from pity to lust.

And… what's the best way to say this? It's not clear that Colin, despite being a sought-after Bridgerton brother, is good enough for her. Penelope is a smart, passionate, talented writer with beautiful red hair and a secret life. Colin is… a handsome man who kept a diary during his vacation. What does Colin find important? What are Colin's interests? Does he have any hobbies other than being swooned over by women (and hating Lady Whistledown)? Bridgerton The season might have been better served if a little more time had been spent developing Colin as a person, beyond Penelope admiring him and explaining why she still does. Honestly, “I'll give you free lessons to improve your personality” isn't the traditional way to make up with someone you said unkind things about her to your stupid friends.

This isn't to say that the season is disappointing overall or that it lacks the qualities that have made the show interesting in the past. It is to his credit that Bridgerton brings body type into its concept of diversifying romantic leads to some extent. Coughlan is shorter and curvier than the other women who had steamy scenes on the show, and unlike the book, the show doesn't mention that she lost a lot of weight between her initial friendship with Colin and his realization of her attraction. (Phew.) Instead, a lot is accomplished with more elegant and sexy styling and new colors to replace the citrus tones her mother has long forced on all her girls, which has never flattered Pen's red hair and super pale skin tone.

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Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte.

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Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte.

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The season is definitely stretching out a bit; there may be a little too much going on. There is the romance; there is a side plot involving Colin's sister Francesca also entering the marriage market; there's Eloise's broken friendship with Penelope and her new friendship with the evil Cressida Cowper; there is Lady Featherington's struggle to keep her estate; there are Penelope's sisters trying to get pregnant; there's the somewhat opaque case of Benedict Bridgerton (the show seems constantly on the verge of revealing something about him). Naturally, the Queen remains fixated on unmasking Lady Whistledown. Plus, Anthony and Kate are still there, preparing to take over as the ruling couple of the Bridgerton house, and they occasionally get naked to get everyone through the early episodes when the primary romance isn't happening yet.

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

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