Shonda Rhimes’ latest series is a delightful romp filled with diverse characters (and casting), and more bodice-ripping intrigue than you can shake a corset at.
Thank goodness for Shonda Rhimes, not only for having the clout to bring a beloved historical romance to a major streaming service but for recognizing what’s been missing from historical television drama: Fun. And Bridgerton is fun, bursting at the seams with romantic tropes, six-packs, friendship, and scandal.
Based on the bestselling books by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton is an effervescent escape from dour and dreary historical dramas like Outlander and Poldark, whose entertainment value seems to lie in how much emotional (and sometimes physical) torture their characters can endure. Not so with Bridgerton, a gloriously candy-colored version of Regency England where wit and humor exist alongside heavier dramatic themes like child neglect, poverty, and social consequence.
Rhimes, along with series creator Chris Van Dusen and an impressive roster of up-and-coming women writers, have taken Quinn’s soft and comforting raw material and spun it into television gold. Bridgerton is beautiful to look at and endlessly charming, with solid performances all around and clever anachronisms making the Regency setting (now saturating the historical romance market) feel fresh and relevant. Best of all, the sprawling cast of characters finally reflects the diversity of the age.
It’s one thing just to see non-white characters in a period piece; it’s entirely different to see them as equals—even superiors—in society. Such is Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), our cinnamon roll hero Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) aka the Duke of Hastings, his working-class friend Will (Martins Imhangbe), and sought-after dressmaker Madame Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale). Not to say the show is colorblind—far from it. When Simon’s surrogate mother, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), upbraids him for neglecting his ducal duty to marry, she tells him:
“Look at our Queen, look at our King. Look at their marriage, look at everything it is doing for us, what it is allowing us to become. We were two separate societies, divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.”
It’s one thing to have actors of color in roles that have always been typically white; it’s something else entirely to have the reality of racial division written into the text while those characters maintain their high rank. It lends a feeling of tenuousness, acknowledging society might accept them now but could change all too easily. The fact Simon’s father is driven to monstrous acts because of that feeling of precariousness says a lot about the ripple effects of racial discrimination and how damaging it can be to an entire culture’s collective psyche.
All that said, Bridgerton never feels weighed down by its heavier themes. Instead, it revolves around the scandal sheets of the anonymous Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), the regency’s answer to Gossip Girl. Bridgerton is fully aware of how a scandal could make or break a woman’s fortunes at the time, and the show makes full use of this fact.
Facing the possibility of spinsterhood (how dreadful), the eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) makes a bargain with Simon to fake a relationship, thus making her seem like more of a catch and keeping matchmaking mothers out of his orbit. What happens probably won’t surprise anyone who has ever seen a RomCom; sparks fly between Daphne and Simon, and underneath all those pyrotechnics, a real friendship begins to form.
While Simon and Daphne carry on their ruse/not ruse, the Bridgertons and their friends and neighbors have their share of drama and scandal. There is a lot to love in these side stories: Anthony Bridgerton’s (Jonathan Bailey) obsession with a sultry opera singer (Sabrina Bartlett), second son Benedict’s (Luke Thompson) exploration of bohemian decadence, and their sister Eloise’s preoccupation with unmasking the real Lady Whistledown. Then there’s the gaudy Featherington’s trying to keep themselves from financial ruin while trying to marry off three daughters and a country cousin. It’s a lot, but none of it feels extraneous.
And while the men may be the ones we swoon for, it’s the women who genuinely reign here. The queen commands, Whistledown exposes, Lady Featherington (Portia Walker) plots, Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) nurtures, and Lady Danbury watches all with a shrewd eye. The grace notes of female support and sisterhood make the world of Bridgerton feel splendidly lived-in. The friendship between Eloise Bridgerton and Penelope Featherington (Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan) evokes the same feelings you’d get staying up hours with your best friend, talking about everything and nothing at all. It’s like watching a warm hug from two people who genuinely love and respect one another.
However, the real heart-rending moments are delivered by Queen Charlotte, who distracts herself with gossip to avoid the truth of her husband’s mental deterioration, and Lady Danbury, whose love for Simon is matched by her hatred of his father. Bridgerton might have succeeded without these characters, but it wouldn’t be nearly as outstanding without these two performances.
Though the twists and turns may feel melodramatic to some viewers, fans of Shonda Rhimes know that she has never been afraid to normalize desire and, above all else, female pleasure, a must-have in any real romance. But romance—and Bridgerton—is about more than just physical and emotional satisfaction. Women’s inner lives, their goals, and their plans are all given pride of place, as are the men in their lives, seeing those needs as equal to their own.
But while I will say this series is near perfect, there is one major flaw that stands out like a bruise on this otherwise unblemished tale, a moment of dubious consent at the end of episode six that borders on sexual assault. While not as egregious or blatant as it was written in Quinn’s book The Duke and I, it is an uncomfortable moment nonetheless, and sensitive viewers should take heed.
That aside, there is little to take issue with in Bridgerton, a distraction so effervescent and full of life you’ll forget all about spending the holidays in quarantine.
Bridgerton premieres on Netflix on December 25.