Sex, Lies And Algorithms

I tend not to be as willing as, say, my roommate to be open to home page suggestions about what a smart TV thinks I should be interested in watching.  The Netflix subscription is in his name (I pay for several of the competitors, to be sure) and lately he’s been spending an awful lot of time on the platform, often choosing his next viewing option from the “Top 10” list that also serves as its self-provided lens into what in other times was called ratings.  So after my hockey team put on a particularly disappointing performance by being shut out at home in their playoff series opener, and with the night still young and the place to myself, I was in a rare mood to do what he usually does and play Platform Roulette.

And there that tile stared at me, bragging about its recent popularity.  A fact that I had just seen in a story that dropped yesterday from THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER’s Rick Porter:

The third season of Bridgerton recorded the show’s biggest opening weekend to date.

According to Netflix’s internal rankings, the first half of season three racked up 45.05 million views (total hours watched divided by running time) worldwide after its May 16 premiere. That’s about 165.2 million hours of viewing time.

In addition to breaking its own opening weekend mark, Bridgerton also recorded the highest single weekly view count for any Netflix series, regardless of language, since the streamer started ranking its titles by views in June 2023. It ranks second among all titles in single-week views since then, behind only the Millie Bobby Brown-led movie Damsel, which had 50.8 million views in mid-March.

That’s impressive even to a jaundiced observer like moi, and, besides, I had also just heard a podcast where the hosts–both educated, millenial females with unapolgetic OCD–were literally gushing about how fantastic this new batch of just-released episodes were in their humble opinions.  Views very similar to those expressed by USA TODAY’s Kelly Lawlor in a review posted earlier this week:

The series is famous for its steamy bedroom scenes from Season 1, which turned honeymoon high jinks into a mating montage as Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon (Regé-Jean Page) consummated their marriage.  Season 2 was criticized for keeping things rathermore chaste, so, seemingly in response, Season 3 ups the amorous ante, cramming in coitus wherever it can.

When the series dropped as a welcome holiday gift in the teeth of the pandemic on Christmas Day 2020, it was as buzzy as anything that had previously emerged from the creative and often horny minds of those in Shondaland.  And BRIDGERTON was the first effort for the platform for Rhimes and her nine-figure deal that took her away from the ABC Studios camp where she fostered the likes of GREY’S ANATOMY, PRIVATE PRACTICE and SCANDAL into an entire night (TGIT) of demographically strong and pop culture-defining drama.  Had I not been in the midst of actually trying to secure a roof over my head and find my way out of hospitals at the time, I probably would have been among the early adopters.  Many TGIT fans who by this point had grown weary of broadcast reruns saw BRIDGERTON as literal manna from heaven.

So I suppose I was predisposed to wanting to give this a shot, and last night I finally did.  And honestly–I’m confused.

I’m aware that this season’s plot line revolves around the relatable and accessible Penelope Featherington, a point Lawler drove home in her more detailed synopsis earlier this week:

Our third bout with the “ton,” as the aristocracy calls itself, sees a new couple taking the spotlight. Technically it’s Colin Bridgerton’s year since he is the member of the titular family falling in love. But the season belongs to (Nicola) Coughlan’s Penelope, the youngest and most overlooked Featherington sister. Penelope has used her wallflower status at every ball and promenade to create a business writing a successful gossip rag under the pseudonym Lady Whistledown (narrated by Julie Andrews), passing judgment on her subjects and angering and intriguing the Queen (Golda Rosheuvel). But it’s getting harder to stay anonymous; Penelope’s best friend Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) ended their friendship in Season 2 when she found out about Penelope’s side hustle.  In Season 3, Penelope turns her attention to her own marriage prospects for the first time, giving up the longstanding crush she’s had on Colin and trying desperately to get out of her mother’s house. But it turns out Penelope wasn’t just overlooked because of the garish dresses her mother made her wear. She’s also awkward and nervous at parties, prone to turn off potential suitors rather than entice them. It’s here Colin swoops in to save the day, offering her “Pygmalion”-style lessons in a charm offensive. He does so because he’s desperate to maintain their friendship after he once turned her off by insulting her. But will he discover he wants to be more than friends? And what will he do if he finds out she’s Whistledown?

All the breadcrumbs of all that made TGIT a must-watch–good-looking but incredibly flawed people, high drama in an aristocratic setting, and an overabundance of libido.  PEOPLE’s Athena Sobhan spoke to the Shondalander most responsible for this world of Downtown Abbey-Cum-She’s All That, showrunner Jess Brownell, who cited mythological inspiration:

Brownell tells PEOPLE that one of the Bridgerton researchers initially pitched the idea to use the myth of Eros and Psyche.

As they looked into the story, they realized “the incredible parallels between the myth and our story,” including the similarities between Psyche’s jealous sisters and Penelope and her own relationship with her sisters, as well as the way Psyche and Lady Whistledown are both revered in society, but both Psyche and Penelope struggle to find someone to marry.  Brownell says that each ball in season 3 is connected to the episode’s theme.

And this is where the show lost me.  While widely acclaimed for its cheeky narrative tone, which Andrews provides in a Princess Bride-like manner, and its liberal use of contemporary music in a Victorian-era setting (ever hear Pitbull scored by a massive orchestra?), I can’t quite tell if this is serious or satirical.  Panoply or parody.  A plotline in search of sex scenes or the inverse?

Lawler, who is clearly as invested in the “ton” as anyone, offered this intriguingly Freudian take on this amidst her prolific summations:

(T)he return of “Bridgerton” made us wonder: What makes a good TV sex scene? What makes one series full of passion and another painfully robotic? How much skin is too much? How much is too little? So for any TV producers looking to add sizzle to their stories, we offer a guide to seemly but not boring sex on TV. Clutch your pearls and read on.

What makes a good sex scene? Emotional investment

When it comes to hanky panky, it helps if you care.  Maybe I sound like your mother giving the sex talk, but all TV is a relationship between characters and the audience. Sometimes you hate the protagonists (or even love to hate them). But in romance? We need to be in love just as much as the fictional people are.

The Daphne and Simon pas-de-deux that inflamed its viewers was, in a word, HOT.  But there was also true love and devotion that was evident, and the fact that it involved an interracial couple (think Olivia Pope and the President) was all the more tongue-wagging.  Penelope and Colin evoke a chemistry akin to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a novel and a movie I arguably shouldn’t have loved as much as I did.  But with a lot less believability IMO.

Maybe I respond better to 20th and 21st century stories of the “ugly” duckling getting the swan than those set in the 19th century.  Or maybe it’s the fact I never could get into anything even close to DOWNTOWN ABBEY or UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS or anything overly British and snooty.

Netflix couldn’t possibly have known that about me.  Or even my roommate.  But it does have a way of enticing an awful lot of consumption through the way it measures its subscribers and serves up something enticing enough for at least a sampling.

Given the show’s history, and the fact these episodes were the first original BRIDGERTONS in more than two years (hardcore fans got a QUEEN CHARLOTTE spinoff last year that at least quenched their thirst for a while), it’s understandable that this quartet, the first split season in its history, commanded the record-setting numbers it did.  And I suppose I’m now part of it myself.

But I’m not going to personally see it through .  Short of a return of something as eye-catching as Daphne and Simon, and the fact that there’s an abundance of new stuff eager for Emmy nominations about to be dropped in the coming weeks, not to mention hopefully more competitive post-season sports, seeing how BRIDGERTON evolves, Eros and Psyche notwithstanding, isn’t for me.

But maybe my roommate might see that “number one”, and the call to action to resume watching, when he gets back.  In which case, at least according to the way Netflix defines viewership, might make our account part of their ongoing success story of “satisfied customers”.

I wonder how many of those 45 million views and counting were made up of similar “hand-off” viewing.  Something to ponder as Netflix attempts to accelerate its ability to sell spots in content like this, at least among advertisers who are OK with an awful lot of shtupping.

Until next time…


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