Culture, television

Review: ‘Bridgerton’ (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the last year or so, but specifically the last six months, a genre I’ve found myself reading more than ever before is romance. Despite my plethora of ‘ships’, it wasn’t a genre I knew much about, but I’ve taken to it with a vengeance. It’s hugely diverse — whether you like contemporary or historical or fantasy settings, whether you lean towards angst and drama or sweetness and humour, whether you like your sex scenes fading-to-black or (quite literally) laid bare in front of you, the genre covers it all. If there is a unifying trait to a genre this multifaceted, however, it’s the promise of a Happily Ever After. No matter how dark or twisty the journey is, to go into a romance novel is to go in with the promise that everything will be alright in the end. Broken hearts will heal, feelings will be requited, and the sun only sets for couples to ride off into. It’s little wonder this genre has been such a go-to in times like these, I think. The predictability and promise of beloved tropes and familiar endings is enormously comforting and dependable, even more so when nothing else in the world is.

With that in mind, the fervour with which people have been anticipating Shonda Rhimes’ first venture with Netflix, an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s bestelling series of romance novels, Bridgerton, is unsurprising. Series creator Chris Van Dusen, who has previously worked with Rhimes on Scandal, hailed Quinn’s series as “not only well written, but…also escapism and considering how things were going in the world at that point, escapism is exactly what I needed.” I must admit I had not read the books before going into the show, even knowing how beloved they were among many of my friends, though I have started book one (The Duke and I, from which the show’s first season is most directly adapted) since finishing. But Shonda Rhimes posits that “You can come to this series having never read a single Bridgerton book or never having even heard of the Bridgerton novels and you will be fully immersed in the world, or you could come to this having read every last one of those books a million times, have dog-eared pages and be obsessed and still find new things to see” and so I dove in headfirst, equipped only with a deep affinity for period dramas in general. And the series is, in a word, delightful.

For those as uninitiated as I was, the series is set in Regency England and follows the tight-knit Bridgerton family, which consists of a widowed mother and of eight siblings (never fear, they’re named in alphabetical order corresponding to their age so you can keep track of who’s who) with each book following each member of the popular, well-connected clan as they find love in the restrictive world of the Regency-era marriage market. Also featuring heavily are the family’s close friends, the Featheringtons, and the omniscient presence of Lady Whistledown, (whose voiceover in the series is provided by the incomparable Julie Andrews in her second turn on a Shonda Rhimes project after her role in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, which Rhimes wrote the screenplay for), an anonymous author of deliciously catty and salacious society gossip papers that set the ton talking. The overall effect is something like Jane Austen meets Gossip Girl with a healthy dose of 2000’s rom com energy, and it’s as enormously fun and fizzy as it sounds.

It’s a period drama that takes its cues from Kirsten Dunst’s Marie Antoinette, The CW’s Reign and Autumn De Wilde’s Emma, more than from the traditional BBC fare many viewers come to expect, and there’s an undoubtedly modern flavour to it all. The score features string covers of pop songs — fans of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5 in particular should pay close attention — and the costumes (of which there are many, all couture specifically for the cast), are colourful, vibrant, extravagant takes on regency fashion. The over-the-top highly saturated aesthetic can feel a bit much at times, with fireworks and rainstorms arriving with near-comic precision to set scenes, but honestly, it’s so dang fun that you enjoy it all the more for that.

Of course, what we’re all coming to this series for is romance, and you’ll find it in spades. Several of the older Bridgerton siblings grapple with their own romantic and marital entanglements in different ways — eldest brother and Viscount, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), is torn between his duties and responsibilities as head of the family and his rakish inclinations and illicit affair with an opera singer; second daughter Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is opposed to the notion of marriage altogether, determined to forge her own path outside of the expectations for a young debutante. But this season is all about the romantic pursuits of eldest Bridgerton sister and the first to “come out” to society, Daphne, who is brought to life in a surprisingly grounded, layered way by Phoebe Dynevor. The series starts with her debut before Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) and the royal court, and we quickly learn Daphne is regarded as the jewel of English society. But for reasons that become increasingly clear, her debut season is not as fruitful as she had hoped, and, desperate to make a favourable match, she finds herself embroiled in an elaborate fake courtship scheme with Bridgerton’s primary bad boy/rake/all-round stud, Simon (Regé-Jean Page), the new Duke of Hastings. Simon is as determined to avoid marriage at all costs as Daphne is to secure one; he is, as mentioned, the rakish bad boy to Daphne’s prim good girl. Oh, and he’s also her big brother Anthony’s best friend and partner-in-mischief from University. 

The set up is drawn from the absolute bread-and-butter of romance tropes. The story unfolds pretty much exactly as you expect it to. And it’s an absolute blast. We may have been banned from Trick-or-Treating this year, but Bridgerton provides at least a comparable sugar rush by way of injecting a series of the cheesiest, tropiest, and utterly moreish scenes imaginable directly into your bloodstream. Also, there’s sex. Like, a lot of sex. This is an adaptation of a series of bodice-rippers, after all, and it takes to that title with gusto. The scenes (and accompanying dialogue) are of the kinds that couldn’t have originated anywhere but from a romance novel, and they’re honestly all the better for using that formula with aplomb. This isn’t an adaptation that tries to take itself too seriously or to veer from its inherently campy, trope-laden romance origins in an effort to be gritty or realistic, and the payoff is fabulous. The show itself seems to take immense joy in the romance staples it’s built on, and allows you to wholeheartedly do the same. Ballroom dances, dramatic declarations of love, scandalous exchanges, gorgeous English countryside scenery — this series knows exactly why you’ve tuned in and delivers all of it with the enthusiasm of a Brown grandma shoveling another helping onto your plate.

Each cast member seems to relish their role — Adjoa Andoh is excellent as acerbic Dowager and Godmother of both Simon (officially) and the ton (unofficially), Lady Danbury. Nicola Coughlan is downright adorable as Penelope Featherington, Eloise’s best friend and a shy wallflower who’s so earnestly good in the face of her rather more mercenary family. Jessie and Bailey bring Eloise and Anthony beautifully to life, wholeheartedly embracing the archetypes their characters represent while also mining them for genuine pathos and realism. 

I’d be remiss to discuss the casting without touching on another defining feature of the shondaland adaptation of this series. This isn’t the first time Rhimes has adapted period stories — I still wistfully remember the unfairly short-lived Shakespeare sequel, Still Star-Crossed — and she has, once again, consciously cast a diverse group of actors in a setting and story that our media has traditionally wholeheartedly whitewashed, nominally for reasons of “historical accuracy”. I’ve been an avid consumer of period dramas my whole life, but if they were to be believed, Black, Brown, and other non-white people apparently did not exist until about 100 years ago, except perhaps as servants, and then magically phased into existence right when Civil Rights or Colonialism historical dramas needed to be made. This is, of course, categorically untrue. And in Bridgerton, Rhimes casting choices make for the refreshing inclusion of characters of colour in settings they haven’t often been filmed — swanning round in flouncy gowns and cravats, lording it over opulent country estates, and of course, enmeshed in the most swoon-worthy, bodice-ripping, pearl-clutch-inducing romances imaginable. It’s fun and freeing in the best way possible. The show’s primary love interest is presented as a Black man, and it’s inherently refreshing to see a Black actor take on the Byronic archetype and romance hero tropes that have traditionally been exclusively imagined with white characters. And Rhimes’ approach isn’t a colour-blind one either. Golda Rosheuvel’s delightfully catty, bratty, gossip-hungry turn as Queen Charlotte is also a casting choice rooted in historical accuracy — the real Queen Charlotte is regarded as the first mixed-race member of the British monarchy, a descendant of Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. The Queen is a hilarious figure but one whose penchant for gossip and drama regarding the marital prospects of the ton is rooted in a place of poignancy when the difficulties of her own marriage to her beloved husband, the so-called “mad king George” are revealed as he grows less lucid and more unwell each day. Rhimes also uses the royal couple to inject the show with some commentary about interracial relationships and the changing attitudes of society. Whilst somewhat glossed over in terms of actual dialogue, it’s still impressive to see such topics discussed outwardly in a period drama, not to mention that beyond simply talking the talk, Rhimes has actually made an interracial couple front-and-center in the show.

That’s not to say the representation is perfect. In particular, there’s a notable lack of dark-skinned actors visible in major roles. When it comes to the female characters, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) a newcomer and outsider to the ton seems to undergo more trauma and unhappiness in romantic relationships than her white counterparts, although there does seem to be the suggestion that her story will be explored further — and hopefully in happier ways — in later seasons. Rhimes has always put her money, and her casting, where her mouth is when it comes to representing diverse characters on screen, and so I am hopeful that she’ll continue to increase the presence and potential of characters of colour as the show continues. I’d especially like to see Black female characters and other female characters of colour centred in the primary romances as the show unfolds.

There are, of course, other details in the show I could pick at, were I so inclined. Places where perhaps the exuberance swerves towards tacky, or where a little restraint or subtlety might have made more climactic scenes feel more earned. But honestly, whilst these criticisms might be true, they didn’t really hamper my enjoyment of the show at all. Bridgerton knows exactly what kind of show it is and is happy to be that with everything it’s got. Watching it, you’d have to try very very hard to resist that kind of infectious giddiness. And at the end of the day, why on earth would you want to?

‘Bridgerton’ will be available for streaming worldwide on Netflix starting December 25.

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