Warning: minor spoilers for Bridgerton to follow.
There has always been something irresistible about period pieces: the lavish costumes, the outrageous hair and makeup, the lavish settings of rococo palaces and grand dining rooms. Unfortunately, all too often, period pieces are confined to the realm of white fantasy – and while that may be true In a historical sense (people of color weren’t exactly prevalent in Regency England), this sounds somewhat disappointing considering how far these big-budget productions go far beyond the realm of true possibility. If Marie Antoinette can wear Converse, why can’t we have a black queen? A Latinx prince? An Asian duchess?
Luckily, for those of us who have waited a lifetime for a vintage piece injected with a much-needed dose of Color, Bridgerton, based on the best-selling novel series of the same name, is here to signal a new era. The first series to emerge from Shonda Rhimes’ landmark $150 million production deal with Netflix, Bridgerton, released Christmas Day on Netflix, is imaginatively heterogeneous in that traditional Shonda Rhimes sense. As Grey’s Anatomy before that, Bridgerton still seems to revolve largely around a predominantly white center – the titular Bridgerton family, which includes a widowed mother (EastEnders‘ Ruth Gemmell), an overprotective brother (Broadchurch‘s Jonathan Bailey), a loving brother (The cottage‘s Luke Newton), and a cast of perfectly fair sisters – but the show goes above and beyond to fill its world with a sea of diverse faces. And right in the middle is an interracial romance.
Set during the 1813 Marriage Market Social Season, Bridgerton mainly concerns Daphne Bridgerton’s slow-burning courtship (Younger‘s Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the titular family who is hailed as “the matchless of the season” by Queen Charlotte of London (Lady Macbeth(Golda Rosheuvel) in the opening scene, and Simon Hastings (Regé-Jean Page, also seen in the upcoming Amazon Prime film Sylvia’s love), a striking young duke who has firmly committed himself to an endless bachelor life despite persistent interest from every eligible bachelor in town. A couple immediately at odds – Daphne, a hopeless romantic who wants to take a page from her parents’ book and find a husband she truly loves; Simon, a staunch anti-romance who, for reasons revealed over time, has sworn off marriage and having children – the two find themselves naturally gravitating towards each other, first by chance arrangement, and later, by sheer force of will. (For what it’s worth, Dynevor and Page sell every moment; their chemistry is undeniable.)
After the release of its first trailer, many were quick to call the upcoming series “Gossip Girl set in the 1800s” thanks to the presence of a Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews). An anonymous gossip columnist whose “scandal slips” reveal many of the city’s darkest secrets, Whistledown turns the world of central characters and many in their extended orbit.Yet unlike Gossip Girl, Lady Whistledown feels more like a creative framing device than anything else – there primarily to serve as the show’s all-knowing narrator as she delivers information that would otherwise only be shared behind closed doors. In fact, it’s not until the second half of the season, when a key character takes an interest in Nancy Drew to find her, that the pursuit of Whistledown’s true identity even becomes a real plot point.
But it’s a strength more than a weakness, proof that Bridgerton no need to lean on a who-could-it-be-maybe crutch to tell a story that is undeniably compelling on its own merits. The eight-episode series is smart, fast-paced, beautifully shot and painstakingly written, filled with equal parts period-appropriate dialogue and scathing witticisms – particularly from Lady Danbury (Doctor Who‘s Adjoa Andoh), whose relentless stream of sharp lines is delightfully wicked enough to make Downton Abbeygrimaced the Dowager Countess.
Plus, the period setting proves the perfect backdrop for building Shonda Rhimes’ iconic world. The costumes, by John Glaser and Maleficentby John Norster and Ellen Mirojnick, are utterly gorgeous – ranging from the elegant but ultimately soft pale whites and grays favored by the Bridgertons to the bright springtime yellows, oranges and pinks favored by the decidedly flashier Featherington clan. Hair and makeup are varied and inventive, especially in the case of Queen Charlotte, whose towering wigs are quite the little scene stealers themselves. And in the perfect mix of old and new, the soundtrack is a pleasant surprise, as wealthy members of London’s aristocracy twirl around hand-painted ballrooms to lush string arrangements of pop hits. modern versions of the Vitamin String Quartet. (I cried audibly when Ariana Grande’s “thank you, next” started playing.)
Of course, these elements alone aren’t enough to truly evolve a predictable genre. Corn Bridgerton makes a world of work to feel current despite its period setting. For all purposes, BridgertonThe very setting of a social season in which helpless women are paraded around in fancy dresses in the hope that the most eligible bachelor will find them worthy of a proposal is anti-feminist, glorifying a time when value of women was measured solely on her ability to come across as more pure than her female peers. (Men, on the other hand, were allowed to frolic happily, sleep with whoever they wanted, until they or they were ready to settle down.)
Bridgerton recognizes this reality head-on and boldly tackles it in a way that doesn’t seem anachronistic, using this backdrop to delve into engaging questioning about the burden of being a woman in Regency London. When Daphne is almost assaulted outside of a fancy ball, she is forced to take matters into her own hands to defend herself. Yet, when all is said and done, she isn’t at all concerned about the immediate threat she faced physically – instead she worries about what being found alone with two men might do to her reputation as a young respectable woman on the marriage market.
It’s a world in which older brothers feel empowered to choose their sister’s future husbands and getting pregnant out of wedlock has lifelong consequences. Bridgerton knows that’s not right, and sprinkles the show with women like Bridgerton’s middle sister, Eloise (vanity lounge‘s Claudia Jessie) – a Jo March-like character who is much more interested in reading, investigating and exploring than buying pretty dresses to wear to glamorous galas and balls but ultimately empty – to underline how hypocritical this philosophy is. A precocious rising feminist, Eloise, with her close friend and confidante Penelope Featherington (Derry Girls‘ Nicola Coughlan), offer a different take on the “womanhood” of the time, rebelling against established norms to reveal some rather unfortunate truths about the limits of female self-sufficiency in the 19th century.
That doesn’t mean that Bridgerton is, however, a serious prestige drama. In fact, it’s one of the most brilliant and easy-to-watch series I’ve had the pleasure of watching in 2020. Like any show in its first season, Bridgerton is far from perfect: despite its obvious progress in diversity, there is still a lot to be done in this area. (It’s hard to ignore the fact that the show’s main characters of color are pretty much uniformly light-skinned, while the few dark-skinned people of color are only seen wandering in the background.) However, despite these flaws, Bridgerton arrives as one of Netflix’s newest new series – a lighthearted and heartwarming update to the period piece that manages to shock and delight at every turn. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop watching.
Bridgerton premieres on Netflix on Christmas Day.