If there’s one thing audiences needed this festive season, it was a fun, frothy period drama. Thankfully, Netflix gifted the world “Bridgerton”, an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels and the first show to materialize from Shonda Rhimes’s $100 million deal with the streamer.
Set in Regency London in 1813, the series follows the Bridgerton siblings as they attempt to navigate Regency society. This season follows the eldest daughter, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), as she enters society (and the marriage market) for the first time, determined to make a good match. Yet matters are complicated when her brother (and head of the family) Antony’s (Jonathan Bailey) overprotectiveness ends up driving away suitors. Enter Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), an eligible, handsome bachelor determined not to marry. Despite disliking each other, they hatch a scheme to pretend to form a match to raise Daphne’s marriage prospects and leave the Duke free from harassment.
The focal point of the season is the identity of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), a mysterious gossip columnist whose information stirs the interest of London society, including Queen Charlotte (Golda Roseuvel). “Bridgerton” certainly employs some overused romance tropes, yet the show also breathes new life into these stereotypes.
No Average Period Drama
“Bridgerton” isn’t interested in being a standard period piece, instead choosing to break boundaries to merge the historical and contemporary to craft an irresistible historical fantasy. A big part of this is the diverse casting, a refreshing choice for a genre that is overwhelmingly white. The casting isn’t the only welcome addition, with the writing focusing on its female characters’ knowledge and experience with sex. It highlights what other period dramas ignore, with girls in upper class families being incredibly unprepared for married life. While the series does not shy away from showing sex scenes, none of them feel gratuitous. In Daphne’s case, they prove crucial to her character development and relationship with Simon (it helps that Page and Dynevor have strong chemistry).
Yet “Bridgerton” doesn’t dismiss period drama tropes, being aware that a scene of hands brushing can feel just as intimate. With this, the series manages to combine the emotional repression of Austen with the sexual progressiveness of “Outlander”. The focus on the female gaze is a welcome one — and hopefully will continue with other women on the show.
What cements “Bridgerton” as a delightful fantasy confection is the production and costume design. Straight away it’s clear that looking for accuracy in the design choices is fruitless, with the costumes (pieces totalling 7,500) and hair featuring a mishmash of period styles and trends (The necklines! The hairstyles!). Yet while they could have made contemporary choices without sacrificing accuracy (see 2020’s “Emma.”), it does enhance “Bridgerton”’s distinct style.
We still get the staple English countryside mansions (with Simon’s estate making Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley seem pitiful) but with the characters all having unique styles. This is displayed with the Featherington family, led by Portia (Polly Walker — born for the role) whose family costumes are garish and overdone, representing their new money status. This modern approach extends to the music selection, which features a string quartet playing Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. Is it ridiculous? Yes. Is it also incredibly entertaining and completely worth it? Absolutely.
Room For Improvement
The show doesn’t quite pull off being a diamond of the first water though. The show thankfully makes changes to a controversial book scene, yet the moment in episode 6, “Swish” is still incredibly troubling for Daphne and Simon’s relationship and raises serious issues about consent. What’s worse is the show makes no attempt to address it afterward or have the couple work through the issue. The focus is instead on Simon’s father issues and Daphne’s feelings of betrayal. It’s frustrating “Bridgerton” joins period dramas like “Outlander” and “Poldark” in mishandling sexual assault, an area they’ll hopefully improve on in future.
In terms of characters, more storylines for Penelope (Nicola Coughlan) and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) would have been welcome, as both stole the show when they were on screen. Another area that “Bridgerton” should improve on is the LGBTQ storylines, which were so ridiculously brief. Particularly with Benedict’s (Luke Thompson) character, this felt like a wasted opportunity. Additionally, the show could expand its world beyond London, giving other characters the spotlight and new locations to explore.
Yet, overall, it’s easy spending time in the world of “Bridgerton”, which provides the perfect escapism. It’s the strongest show to emerge from Netflix’s mega-deals with TV creators, making Rhimes’s other upcoming projects much more enticing. With seven other novels to adapt, “Bridgerton” will hopefully become a much-needed a Christmas tradition.