It may seem anachronistic, but period films have grown more modern over time as tales set in centuries past are spiced up with contemporary dialogue, antics, and ideals. The goal is to make such stories more approachable to wider audiences, and when handled well the end result can be sharply entertaining fare capturing past worlds through a more familiar lens. Bridgerton, recently premiered on Netflix with its first eight-episode season, brings to life romance, drama, and characters from the early 19th century with an eye for style and skin and an ear for banter and melodrama. It’s sexy and soapy, overly serious and unavoidably goofy, and while Jane Austen needn’t worry about the competition it’s rarely less than an entertaining dive into an 1800s high society page.
The Bridgerton clan consists of a widow and her eight children, but it’s the eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) whose narrative remains mostly in focus this season. She’s at the age where marriage comes next, but while her coming out catches the approval of the queen (Golda Rosheuvel) her luck with eligible suitors is far less smooth. Men want her, but Daphne’s older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) is stumbling in his role as man of the house and dismissing them all out of hand. One unappealing chap makes it over the hurdles, but it’s a returning duke who seems to have secured the spot. Daphne wants to drive up interest in other men by appearing taken, and Simon the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) wants the desperate mothers trying to marry off their daughters to leave him alone — the pair pretend to be courting, and both secure what they want.
You’re probably wondering at this point if Daphne and Simon, two immensely attractive people pretending to like each other will actually fall in love with each other only to encounter some truly insurmountable obstacles. And to that I can only say, well duh.
Bridgerton is an adaptation of the first of an eight-book series by Julia Quinn, and while each book focuses on a different sibling’s quest for love and life there’s an ensemble feel to it all the same. This first season — it’s recently been renewed by Netflix for a second — is Daphne’s story, but subplots abound involving Anthony’s own love life, Simon’s stubbornly dumb reasoning for not wanting children, the mysterious identity of an anonymous gossip columnist (who narrates the show and is voiced by Julie Andrews), and the antics of a whole other family across the street. It shouldn’t surprise you that they’re called the Featheringtons…
Created by Chris Van Dusen, Bridgerton is a Shonda Rhimes production which guarantees a few things for viewers, for both better and worse depending on your tastes. Replace the murders and massive conspiracies of Scandal with pomp, circumstance, and social commentary on sexism and class, and you have a character drama that’s as prone to sexy encounters as it is to silly bouts of seriousness. Every move and glance can be made into something larger due as much to these frequently big characters as to the real dramas of the period, but one that never rears its head is the issue of race. Rhimes continues to champion diversity in her casts, and here that means a Black woman playing the Queen of England, elites and servants of all ethnicities, and no mention of race at all.
That ahistorical approach continues with the mostly invisible use of CG to enhance and build the period cityscape, but it extends into the score as well with contemporary pop songs appearing as string renditions. Costume design is bright and vibrant, as should be expected for a period series populated with an abundance of parties, balls, galas, royal get-togethers, and such. The characters here are constantly on the move from one event to the next, and for many the only things on their mind are love, lust, and the threat of financial ruin.
The roles of men and women are challenged, sometimes from a distance, and the questioning often derails the reality of a time and place where all power of note rests with men. Daphne must learn about masturbation from Simon — an awkward conversation to say the least — while she and other girls are shocked and confused when they hear of a woman becoming pregnant despite not being married. Society has withheld their agency and limited women to restricted roles, but Van Dusen and Rhimes stretch the confines of what’s acceptable for women on a regular basis with characters who push those boundaries and historical limitations.
Some of Bridgerton‘s supporting characters are dull as dirt — I could not tell the other two brothers apart if you put a flintlock to my head and threatened to pull the trigger — but one of the standouts is the show’s most interesting and engaging. Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is Daphne’s next-in-succession sister, and she’s as disgusted with the dog and pony show that young women are forced to walk as she is terrified of it. She’s also witty, smart, and incisive in her observations. When a friend congratulates another for falling in love it’s Eloise who questions the supposed accomplishment stating “She did not build that man or bake him.” Jessie’s delivery crafts an endearingly sassy delight and a welcome respite from the at times contrived central narrative.
“The brighter a lady shines, the faster she may burn,” and it’s a truth that some of the women of Bridgerton learn all too well as they court uncertain futures, enjoy unstable romps, and struggle against a society built for others. Don’t worry, it sounds more serious than it actually is as the show makes plenty of time for mildly humorous melodrama, genuinely funny antics, broken hearts, fleshy tumbles, and more. (There’s also the ongoing mystery regarding Lady Whistledown’s true identity, and no, I’m not buying the season’s supposed reveal on that front.) At the end of the day, Bridgerton is little more than escapism and diversion into an artificial past for people stuck in a very real present, but that’s no small thing.