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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Love hurts

The sting of rejection is an emotion whose nuances Jane Austen understood well – whether the agony of the jilted Marianne Dashwood (“Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?”), the wounded conceit of the socially ambitious Mr. Elton (“He was too angry to say another word”), or the passionate disappointment of the young Captain Wentworth, “feeling himself ill used by so forced a relinquishment.”

So Austen would likely have been well equipped to portray the emotions of everyone involved in The Courtship, the Regency-themed reality-TV dating show that NBC just unceremoniously booted from its primetime lineup.

Barely a month ago, the network was telegraphing its high hopes for the show, scheduling it for a Sunday night broadcast slot even though it had originally been intended to go straight to streaming on Peacock. But that was before the first episode, airing on March 6, drew fewer than a million viewers and the second episode did even worse, losing more than a third of its audience.

By contrast, Netflix’s smash-hit Regency romance Bridgerton, often cited as an inspiration for The Courtship, drew eighty-two million viewers in its first month of availability.

Those of us (we few, we happy few. . .) who still want to find out whether winsome Nicole Rémy, a twenty-six-year-old software engineer from Seattle, will achieve her Happily Ever After with any of the eleven men remaining from her original pool of sixteen suitors must be prepared to stay up very late on a school night, or at least to set our DVRs: The Courtship has been banished to the Wednesday at 11 pm slot on the USA Network, which sounds like cable-TV Siberia to me.

The Courtship, which began life under the name Pride and Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance, aims to put an Austenesque spin on The Bachelorette’s formula: The action unfolds in a palatial mansion in the English countryside, the cast dress in Regency clothing, the heroine’s parents are on hand to screen her romantic choices, and the courting rituals incorporate handwritten letters, lakeside picnicking, and formal balls.

Initially, it sounded as if the show’s creators intended something like the old PBS series The 1900 House and its sequels, in which modern folk try to adapt to the social and material conditions of an earlier time. But The Courtship, it seems clear, never committed to its premise. We aren’t getting an attempt to simulate the conventions of Regency courtship; we’re getting a contemporary dating show, except with funny costumes.

TV dating shows thrive on overtly sexual titillation (how far will they go in the hot tub?) whereas Jane Austen, at least in the version popularized by screen adaptations, is all about the sexiness of socially enforced restraint. The Courtship keeps trying to have it both ways – parental supervision, but also consequence-free make-out sessions; decorous country dancing, but also well-built young men stripping off their shirts. (Or, in a clear nod to the most famous Austen adaptation of them all, getting those shirts very, very wet.)

As a result, I suspect, it’s too little sex and skin for dating-show fans, and too much for anyone genuinely interested in watching Regency mores play out in a contemporary context. Too bad: It might have been interesting to watch a modern woman trying to choose a life partner without ever getting a look at his abs.

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