▶︎ Bridgerton (eight episodes) is on Netflix
A brash, cheerfully anachronistic hotchpotch of period drama tropes, Bridgerton is the first fruit of the substantial deal signed between Netflix and the American television drama producer Shonda Rhimes in 2017. This deal marked a break between Rhimes and ABC, for whom she made the hugely successful dramas Grey’s Anatomy (2005-), Private Practice (2007-13) and Scandal (2012-18). Along with the defection of Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee) from Fox to Netflix the following year, the Rhimes deal evidenced the streamer’s scorched-earth approach to taking over TV.
Creator and showrunner duties fall here to Rhimes’s collaborator on her ABC hits, Chris Van Dusen; source material is a book series by the best-selling American romance novelist Julie Quinn. Quinn anatomised, in cod-Austen style, the social, romantic and sexual growing pains of the eight Bridgerton siblings, who are coming of age in London in the early 19th century. Their exploits in and around the debutante market are observed and waspishly recorded by a mysterious newspaper columnist known as Lady Whistledown.
This structural debt to the teen drama Gossip Girl (2007-12) gives an indication of where Bridgerton pitches itself, demographic-wise; the show’s American lens on English history, meanwhile, is neatly signified by the fact that Lady Whistledown is voiced by one of Hollywood’s favourite enduring emblems of cartoonified English refinement, Julie Andrews.
Circa 1813, the eldest of the Bridgerton siblings, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), is among the eligible young woman presented to the court of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) – and if you’re thinking Daphne is an improbable christian name for a Regency Englishwoman, then in all likelihood Bridgerton is not going to be for you.
A good marriage is Daphne’s duty to her family, which, though famed and eminent, is cash-poor since the death of her father. However, the combination of a lacklustre response from the Queen, some protective discouragement of suitors by her brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and a sniffy write-up from Lady Whistledown sees Daphne’s position plummet on Day One.
Daphne responds by concocting a ‘showmance’ with her brother’s friend Simon, Duke of Hastings. Simon (Regé-Jean Page) is a controversial figure due to his rakish ways, but Daphne’s hope is that proximity to his wealth and nobility will increase her own market value. Meanwhile, a young outsider with neither name nor money, Marina (Ruby Barker), proves an unexpected hit with the bachelors – but is quickly beaten back by her jealous guardian, Mrs Featherington (Polly Walker), who covets similar attention for her own daughters.
‘Colour-blind casting’ is one of the talking points of Bridgerton, although blind isn’t precisely what it is – the characters of colour, Simon, Marina and Queen Charlotte among them, move within noble and courtly society, but seem to bear with them a vestigial awareness of real-world racism. “You shall never understand!” Marina rails at Mrs Featherington. “Someone like you, living this ridiculously charmed… do you think I wanted to come here? To be around people like you – so out of touch, so superior?” The character’s inescapably modern attitude here comes across as the production asserting its own in-touchness by scolding its historical context.
Elsewhere, teenage girls confidently decry the conditioning that requires them to be “decorative objects”, find their sexual selves via masturbation, and covertly puff on cigarettes. F-words are thrown around, along with other modern idioms, and the general tone is one of relentlessly perky post-millennial sarcasm. There’s little pretence, in other words, that Bridgerton’s Regency setting is any more than a setting; these are modern people doing cosplay.
This does make the whole endeavour rather strange. Like its characters of colour, the women of Bridgerton are so thoroughly empowered, self-confident and sociologically savvy that the show renders its own premise – their helplessness in the face of the economic position of their sex – nonsensical. If people had been like this, the viewer is driven to thinking, then it wouldn’t have been like this!
It’s a weird, wearying balancing act, positioning as equal characters whom the story requires to be absolutely not equal. The fact that Daphne is frequently required to reiterate variations on the theme of her own utter dependence on getting married – “This is all I have been raised for! This is all I am! I have no other value!” – feels like a nervous reminder from the writers that even though it seems like she should just get an apartment and an internship, it’s the olden days, so she totally couldn’t.
But it’s also a fascinating distillation of the effort required of mainstream commercial entertainment if it is to evade current ideological tripwires. In presenting itself to the court of public opinion, Bridgerton seeks appreciation for its youth, its prettiness and its undemanding wit. Who knows how many potential suitors might have been turned away by historical nitpicking or undue ideological complexity?
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.