The rumours are true. Yes, it’s Gossip Girl meets Jane Austen. Yes, it takes itself slightly too seriously for a show that’s so audaciously shallow. And yes, it’s a bodice-ripper for the 21st century.
That’s the funny thing about bodice-ripping, though—stays are surprisingly hard to tear, so if you want it done well, you need a deft hand and a discerning eye.
Bridgerton has both in spades. As a result, the series is effortlessly bingeable. And, at the end of this particular year, that quality alone is worth its weight in gold. In turns swoony, saucy, and steamy, Bridgerton is a recipe that takes genre hallmarks like fake-dating, enemies-to-lovers, and mutual pining, and dumps a heaping handful of pure, unashamed sex on top. Buttoned-up fans of the prim and proper, be warned: you might just want to rewatch that BBC miniseries for the upteenth time instead.
What shall we call the sex scenes in Bridgerton? Arbitrary? Undoubtedly. Gratuitous? Absolutely. And if those last 11 words aren’t enough to convince you to watch the show, you’re unlikely to buy into the conceits of the show’s world. Bridgerton balances expertly on the singular notion that young people want to be married for security, wealth, and love, granted, but also because in each of them there is a deeply-buried but still nearly rabid desire for each others’ bodies. And in 1813, marriage is the one way to attain the latter and keep your good name.
Bridgerton begins at the opening of the yearly social season, where powerful, rich families and their eligible offspring descend upon London to see and be seen, court and be courted. The cream of the crop is Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), who is publicly declared by the queen (Golda Rosheuvel, wonderfully haughty and tragic) to be “flawless”. This pronouncement is reinforced by the ever-sharp quill of a mysterious Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews, an old hand at voiceover after playing a kraken in 2018’s Aquaman). Whistledown is an unabashed scandalmonger who revels in periodically dropping pamphlets like bombs on the ‘ton’, or high society, which takes its cues from her game of human chess. But Daphne floats above it all.
Until, that is, Whistledown turns on Daphne. The anonymous writer has watched with interest the arrival of a new girl in town, the beautiful but guarded Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), who comes to stay with her romantically hapless Featherington cousins. This, coupled with the fact that Daphne’s dutiful but hypocritical eldest brother (Jonathan Bailey) has scared off all of her potential suitors, is enough for Whistledown to declare her lacking. This, in 19th-century speak, spells death.
But the devilishly handsome Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) has just arrived in town—and, luckily for our heroine, he’s a playboy who’s tired of being pestered about when he’s going to settle down. The two concoct a plan, trading barbs all the while. If they appear to be interested in one another, Simon gets the mamas (delightfully pronounced muh-MAHS) of the ton off his back, and Daphne is re-elevated. You can probably guess what happens next.
Bridgerton is powerhouse producer Shonda Rhimes’ first project for Netflix, and has a showrunner in Chris Van Dusen, a Shondaland protege who cut his teeth writing and producing for Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Rhimes, whose reported seven-figure deal with Netflix specifies that she’ll bring eight (count ‘em, eight) original projects to the platform in total, has a certain penchant for modern dramatic tropes that marry surprisingly well with the conventions of the historical romance. One has to wonder why it’s taken so long for Shondaland sensibilities like restless, ambitious, pushy women and egregious sex scenes to intrude into the space of that particular genre. (Granted, we’ve had Outlander since 2014, but for half a decade it was the only player on the field.)
That said, other aspects of Bridgerton, like its onscreen diversity, modern morals, instrumental covers of pop music (hello, Ariana, Taylor, and Billie!) and bright aesthetics have been proliferating in historical television for a while now. The series is clearly taking cues from shows like The Great and Dickinson, though Bridgerton doesn’t play in the sandbox of anachronism with as much glee. A first glance at the show, looking at both casting and production design, leaves one surprised when the characters open their mouths and modern words don’t flow out. But staunchly setting its dialogue in opposition to its visual language arguably breaks new ground—up until now, ‘high society’ period shows have too often forced themselves to choose between a serious tone (read: realism and drama) and diverse (read: ahistorical) casting. Bridgerton, marvellously, has its cake and eats it too.
That isn’t to say that its writing doesn’t sometimes make the show trip over itself. Sometimes simultaneously overblown and underbaked, Bridgerton stumbles into a few moments of disappointing mistranslation from the Julia Quinn novels it is based on. It’s much worse in the book, but in a mid-season episode there is still a sudden, alarming moment of non-consent that drives an uneasy rift between two characters for a while. But that conflict is resolved without much work being done by either of them. The show hand-waves the issue away with little nuance and less discussion.
This is the primary issue with Bridgerton. Not that it’s fizzy, but that it tries not to be, only to then fall back into the trappings of superficiality when things get complicated. It is strangely resistant, for example, to giving itself over to certain characters’ perspectives. We know Marina’s story primarily by following the arcs and perspectives of Penelope Featherington (the superb Nicola Coughlan), and later, Daphne Bridgerton. Why it might be significant that this dynamic exists between a Black character like Marina and white ones like Penelope and Daphne, the show doesn’t seem interested in exploring.
In fact, Bridgerton is wholly uninterested in interrogating itself. It offers well-intentioned but underdeveloped explanations—that the ton is so diverse because years ago their king, a white man, fell in love with Queen Charlotte, a Black woman, and their love story subsequently eradicated racism—and then fails to consider the implications therein. Bridgerton didn’t have to explain itself, but it started to. And in stopping after just a few sentences of rationale, it unbalances itself and does its audience a disservice.
There will be viewers who are irked by this, and there will be far more, I suspect, who do not care. This is not to shame those who fall into the latter category. For an end-of-year romance, Bridgerton is colourful, sizzling, and has a vitality to it that washes over you like a cooling wave on a hot day. It’s just that the show seems to want to hold itself to a higher standard. Like navigating the treacherous world of the ton, there is courage in that, as well as danger.
Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix.