Netflix's Bridgerton offers aspirational fantasy of racial integration packaged as Regency romance
Shonda Rhimes' Bridgerton conforms, in many ways, to the standards of Regency romance and society drama, but updates the formula to reflect 21st-century sensibilities
Netflix’s Bridgerton begins like any other British period drama about the fancy folk. The sun shines on Grosvenor Square. Horses pull fine carriages along a resplendent street. A dapper gentleman out for a stroll nods his head to a passerby.
And this is where you begin to see that Bridgerton, which arrives like a flaming Christmas pudding on Friday, is not exactly like every other British period drama about the fancy folk. The prosperous gentleman is Black; the gaily dressed woman he escorts is white.
Though the story that follows in Bridgerton conforms in many ways to the standards of Regency romance and society drama, something has happened to this version of London. That something is Shonda Rhimes.
Bridgerton, created by Chris Van Dusen (a co-executive producer of Rhimes’ Scandal) and based on the romance novels of Julia Quinn, is the first original series for the streaming network by Rhimes’ Shondaland production company, which had been a pillar of the ABC prime-time lineup.
As with the productions of Ryan Murphy, another emigrant from network TV to the gold-paved production lots of streaming, the upgrade in budget and scale is dazzlingly apparent. But certain themes and hallmarks remain.
One is a dedication to sexy, smart popcorn escapism.
Another is the belief that characters of colour should get to have just as much fun, have just as much agency and range of possibility — and be just as bad — as anyone else.
The escapism first: Bridgerton opens amid the formalised courting season in 1813 London, as high-society families scheme to pair off their young eligibles. The social machinations, as much public entertainment as romantic ritual, are narrated and sometimes instigated by the scandal-sheet writer Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), whose true identity becomes a Gossip Girl-like mystery.
The great game is a special challenge for Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), with eight children to pair off, including her idealistic eldest daughter, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who inconveniently wants to marry for love. Besieged by unwanted, punchable-faced suitors, Daphne makes a pact with Simon (Regé-Jean Page), the rakish bachelor Duke of Hastings, to feign a courtship. She buys herself time, he stays unattached; both insist they have no interest in the other.
This plan goes very much where you’re guessing, but with detours that reflect 21st-century sensibilities. There are scandals and seductions, promenades and pecs, bodices and balls.
But there’s also an unstuffy pop aesthetic (those balls feature string arrangements of songs like Ariana Grande’s 'Thank U, Next'). And there’s plenty of streaming-TV explicitness, established early by the sight of a drop-trousered young man, and his less-than-coy mistress sporting while they may against a tree.
The most interesting departure is the racial integration of the nobility, explained midway through the eight-episode season as an accident of history and love. King George III (yes, the mad one) married Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who is of mixed race (as some historians have argued the actual Charlotte was). This led the Crown to grant peerages to a number of people of colour, including Simon’s family.
As alternative history, this hand-waves a lot of comparisons with actual history. Is this newly progressive Britain still colonising lands across the globe? Where did the vast estates for the new nobility come from? How long did it take for racism to — evidently — simply vanish from the kingdom?
Bridgerton offers an aspirational fantasy but is not super interested in the fine print, as opposed to Murphy’s Hollywood (in which the 1940s movie industry turns racially enlightened) or Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (in which reparations lead to apocalyptic backlash).
Like many of Rhimes’ past shows, it wears its inclusiveness consciously but lightly.
Here, race is relevant, but not the sum of any character’s story.
But a flashback in which Simon’s domineering father (Richard Pepple) tells him the family must “remain extraordinary” to keep its position recalls Scandal, in which Olivia Pope’s father taught her that Black people like themselves “have to be twice as good” as white people “to get half of what they have.”
Bridgerton also resembles the recent Dickinson and The Great in infusing stories of women from past centuries with a 21st-century attitude and attention to female agency.
The sex scenes, focused on women’s perspective and pleasure, feel like declarations of purpose. The series makes a point of how keeping women in the dark about the sensations and mechanics of sex is this society’s way of keeping them under control. As the initially naïve Daphne discovers, sexual knowledge — having the owner’s manual to one’s body — is power.
How women find power in this society is a through-line of Bridgerton. For Lady Whistledown and Daphne’s freethinking sister, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), it comes through letters. For the scheming Lady Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) and Simon’s imperious aunt, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), it’s through social manipulation.
Even for Queen Charlotte — a messy Brit who lives for drama — meddling in the social lives of the nobility offers the control she lacks in her marriage to the mentally declining king. (Her hunger for gossip, as she follows her subjects’ love lives like the 19th-century version of an extremely online superfan, also makes her a kind of audience surrogate.)
The actual story mechanics of Bridgerton are much more conventional than its style. The various marriage plots and melodramas feel familiar (and, in the season’s back half, drawn-out), and the gestures at upstairs-downstairs class-consciousness are underdeveloped.
But what works here is fizzy and fun enough that you may not care. Page is magnetic, with a fine-tuned sense of Simon as simultaneously cold and steamy, guarded and sympathetic. Dynevor likewise balances Daphne’s romanticism and independent-mindedness, and the bow-chicka-wow-wow physical chemistry between the two leads is a character in itself.
It adds up to a reliable story in fancy modern packaging. But the old-newness of Bridgerton is a kind of statement in itself. On the one hand, this is not your great-great-great grandmother’s Regency romance. On the other, it suggests that maybe your great-great-great grandmother was not as different from you as you think.
James Poniewozik c.2020 The New York Times Company
(All images from Twitter)
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