Warning: Slight spoilers for Bridgerton to follow.
There’s always been something irresistible about period pieces: the lavish costumes, the outrageous hair and makeup, the sumptuous settings of rococo palaces and grand dining halls. Unfortunately, far too often, period pieces are restricted to the realm of white fantasia — and while this may be true in a historical sense (people of color weren’t exactly prevalent in Regency England), it does ring somewhat disappointing when considering how much else in these big-budget productions are stretched 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 been waiting a lifetime for a period piece injected with a much-needed dose of color, Bridgerton, based on the bestselling 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, out Christmas Day on Netflix, is imaginatively heterogeneous in that traditional Shonda Rhimes sense. Like Grey’s Anatomy before it, Bridgerton still seems to largely revolve 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 lovestruck brother (The Lodge’s Luke Newton), and a group of perfectly fair sisters — but the series goes beyond that to fill out its world with a sea of diverse faces. And right there in the middle is an interracial romance.
Taking place during the marriage market social season of 1813, Bridgerton primarily concerns the slow-burning courtship of Daphne Bridgerton (Younger’s Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the titular family who is hailed “the season’s incomparable” by London’s Queen Charlotte (Lady Macbeth’s Golda Rosheuvel) in the opening scene, and Simon Hastings (Regé-Jean Page, also seen in Amazon Prime’s upcoming Sylvie’s Love), a striking young Duke who has firmly committed himself to an endless life of bachelorhood despite the persistent interest of every eligible bachelorette in town. An immediately at-odds pair — Daphne, a hopeless romantic who wants to take a page from her parents’ book and find a husband she truly loves; Simon, a devout anti-romantic who, for reasons that reveal themselves over time, has sworn off marriage and having children — the two naturally find themselves gravitating towards each other, first by way of a chance arrangement, and later, through 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 label the forthcoming series a “Gossip Girl set in the 1800s” thanks to the presence of one Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews). An anonymous gossip columnist whose “scandal sheets” reveal many of the town’s darkest secrets, Whistledown upends the world of the 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 omniscient narrator as she spreads around information that would otherwise only be exchanged behind closed doors. In fact, it’s not until the second half of the season, when a key character takes a Nancy Drew-like interest in tracking her down, that the pursuit of Whistledown’s true identity even becomes a real plot point.
But this is a strength more than it is a weakness, proof that Bridgerton need not lean on a who-could-it-possibly-be crutch to tell a story that is undeniably compelling on its own merits. The eight-episode series is smart, quick-moving, gorgeously shot, and painstakingly written, filled equally with period-appropriate dialogue and scathing witticisms — especially from Lady Danbury (Doctor Who’s Adjoa Andoh), whose endless stream of sharp one-liners are deliciously catty enough to make Downton Abbey’s own Dowager Countess wince.
Furthermore, the period setting proves the perfect backdrop for Shonda Rhimes’ signature world-building. The costumes, by John Glaser and Maleficent’s John Norster and Ellen Mirojnick, are utterly gorgeous — ranging from the elegant but ultimately meek pale whites and grays preferred by the Bridgertons to the bright springtime yellows, oranges, and pinks favored by the noticeably flashier Featherington clan. The hair and makeup is varied and inventive, particularly in the case of Queen Charlotte, whose towering wigs are every bit the little scene-stealers themselves. And in the perfect mesh of old and new, the soundtrack is a delightfully pleasant surprise, as the wealthy members of London’s aristocracy twirl around hand-painted ballrooms to lush string arrangements of modern-day pop hits by the Vitamin String Quartet. (I audibly screamed when Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” started playing.)
Of course, these elements alone are not enough to truly evolve a predictable genre. But Bridgerton does a world of work to feel current despite its period setting. By all intents and purposes, Bridgerton’s very setting of a social season during which powerless women are paraded around in fancy gowns in the hopes that the most eligible bachelor will find them worthy of a proposal is anti-feminist, glamorizing an era in which women’s worth was measured solely on her ability to come across as more pure than her female peers. (Men, meanwhile, were allowed to gleefully gallivant around, sleeping with whoever they wanted, until they were ready to settle down.)
Bridgerton acknowledges this reality head-on and boldly addresses it in a way that somehow doesn’t feel anachronistic, using this backdrop to dive into an engaging interrogation of the burden of being a woman in Regency London. When Daphne is almost assaulted outside a swank ball, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands to defend herself. Yet when it’s all said and done, she isn’t at all concerned with the immediate threat she was just under physically — rather, she’s worried about what being found alone with two men could do to her reputation as a respectable young woman on the marriage market.
This is a world in which older brothers feel entitled to choose their sister’s future husbands and getting pregnant out of wedlock has lifelong consequences. Bridgerton knows this isn’t right, and sprinkles the show with women like middle Bridgerton sister Eloise (Vanity Fair’s Claudia Jessie) — a Jo March-like character who is far more interested in reading, investigating, and exploring than she is in shopping for pretty gowns to wear to glamorous but ultimately empty galas and balls — to point out just how hypocritical this philosophy is. A precocious rising feminist, Eloise, along with her close friend and similarly-minded confidante Penelope Featherington (Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan), offer a different take on “womanhood” of the era, rebelling against the established norms to reveal some rather unfortunate truths about the limitations of female self-suffiency in the 19th century.
This doesn’t mean that Bridgerton is some self-serious prestige drama though. In fact, it’s one of the brightest, easiest-to-watch series I’ve had the pleasure to binge in 2020. Like any show in its debut season, Bridgerton is far from perfect: despite its clear strides in diversity, there is still much work to be done in that arena. (It’s hard to ignore the fact that the show’s chief characters of color are pretty much uniformly light-skinned, while the few dark-skinned people of color are only seen roaming around the background.) Yet despite these faults, Bridgerton arrives as one of Netflix’s freshest new series — a lighthearted and comforting update on 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.