In previous years, there seemed to be an unspoken belief that period dramas had no space for diversity, but now 63 million households are proving otherwise.
If Shonda Rhimes’s world-famous production company Shondaland knows how to do anything, it’s how to make good television—and Bridgerton is no exception.
After the first episode, I knew three things for certain: I would now exclusively listen to string quartet versions of pop songs; I would no longer go for walks, but “promenade for suitors”; there’s no way I would remember all of these extremely long names.
Set in 1813 Regency London, the series follows high society debutantes as they are stirred and shaken by the mysterious Lady Whistledown’s scandalous gossip column (voiced by Dame Julie Andrews herself).
The show focuses on the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters the marriage market to find her perfect match. Also working his way through high society is the extremely attractive Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Rége-Jean Page), who absolutely does not want to get married.
After encountering a few bumps on her path to find her perfect partner, Daphne and Simon hatch a plan that they hope will get them both exactly what they want—a fake courtship to attract potential husbands to Daphne and steer potential wives far away from Simon.
The Bridgerton siblings are all overwhelmed by their own drama; oldest brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) finds himself involved with an Opera singer (Sabrina Bartlett) far below his station, Colin (Luke Newton) gets himself in a tricky situation after falling head over heels in love, Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is the headstrong sister who values her education far more than any potential match, and Benedict (Luke Thompson) simply seems to enjoy painting.
We also follow the Featherington’s, another family who find themselves embroiled in Lady Whistledown’s gossip. In particular, we follow Penelope Featherington (played by the wonderful Nicola Coughlan), best friend to Eloise and the odd one out within her family, and her beautiful cousin Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), who attracts the eye of many suitors but has her own secret past. This is only to name a few; there are many more characters whose stories and scandals pop up on our screens. It’s Downton Abbey meets Gossip Girl, but with a sprinkling of sauciness.
It was easy to binge the entire eight episodes within 24 hours straight because I simply couldn’t bring myself to stop. The writing is great: it’s witty, fast and real. The end of every episode felt like the end of a chapter in your new favourite book, where you tell yourself “just one more” before you turn to the final page and, suddenly, it’s 3 A.M. Bridgerton creates a world that is so intriguing and exciting that you can’t help but picture yourself in it.
In terms of characters, it’s easier to love some more than others. The Bridgerton brothers are almost a Regency-era Jones Brothers tribute and there was something charming about their relationship with each other. Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) prove themselves as forces to be reckoned with from their first appearances, and I found myself skimming through episodes beforehand just so I knew I’d have a Penelope and Eloise scene to look forward to.
Rége-Jean Page’s portrayal of Simon Bassett was the highlight of the show. I loved everything about the Duke, and it seems everyone else did too, if social media is anything to go by. He completely nailed the brooding and emotionally unavailable yet devastatingly attractive male lead, with his own cheekiness thrown in there. I think Page will be on everyone’s radar for an extremely long time. The world has never wanted to be an inanimate object so badly since Connell’s chain. Google the Duke’s spoon, I dare you.
Phoebe Dynevor is a brilliant actress and appears to have mastered the art of tooth acting in a strange Kiera Knightly-esque way that works for her. Page and Dynevor have such intense chemistry together onscreen that you can’t help but feel warm and fuzzy inside. Their relationship is fun, steamy and, above all, honest.
But I enjoy Dynevor far more than I do the character she plays. Miss Daphne Bridgerton was the one character that is almost difficult to like. She was often bland and somewhat boring, wilting in comparison to the vibrancy of other female characters, in particular her younger sister Eloise. However, it is entirely possible that my dislike for her is aimed completely towards her fringe, which should be higher on her list of concerns than finding a husband. She becomes slightly more likeable once she grows a backbone, but one could happily make a cup of tea during her scenes and know they were missing nothing more than some talk of dresses and virtue.
Then again, maybe this is the point of Daphne’s character—to show different types of women that we encounter in real life. Eloise is the destroy the patriarchy kind of feminist and Daphne radiates the marriage and children is my dream energy. Neither is made to seem more worthwhile than the other. The scene of women taking down a corrupt Lord through the sheer power of gossip will be imprinted in my brain for a long time. Thank you, ladies.
The show has been praised for its racially diverse cast, which is not something that we often see when we turn on a somewhat typical Jane Austen spin-off. For a genre that is so historically whitewashed, Shondaland works to create a period drama in which different races are able to move freely within the upper echelons of society. This is what helps the show stand out so vastly against the hundreds of other period dramas hidden away on Netflix; Bridgerton’s cast reflects the world we live in right now.
Despite this, it does seem that there is some criticism on whether Bridgerton’s colour-blindness is more problematic than it is helpful; particularly when it comes to some of their more challenging scenes.
This seems no more evident than during the 6th episode. Without any spoilers, a scene with a somewhat gender-reversed The Handmaid’s Tale vibe was quickly brushed over in a way that didn’t appear to fully realise the magnitude of what had happened.
Whether a question of race or gender, the show had an opportunity to go on a more difficult journey that dealt with the mishandling of consent. Their reasons for choosing not too are unknown, but there’s no doubt it would have created a very different, much darker show.
The staging and costume are decadent and vibrant (albeit not always the most accurate) and allows us the ultimate escapism.
Bridgerton explores honour, expectation, status and tradition, all whilst finding the real within. Well done to Netflix, Shonda Rhimes and all of the cast and production crew on what was easily one of the best shows to sneak its way into the end of 2020. They’ve set a precedent for the new kind of period drama that we’ll be seeing much more of this year.