Well, here it is folks. The first Shonda Rhimes produced Netflix series, and oh boy, it is a lot. Created by Chris Van Dusen, the series is an adaptation of Julia Quinn’s bestselling Regency romance novels, Bridgerton. This first season (or only if Netflix does not renew) is based on the first novel of the series, The Duke and I. On its own, it is a compelling, lavish, and swoon-worthy period drama that cranks up the heat to an 11, but it is also a great set up for a multi-part series that explores so many interesting characters and stories.
The series follows Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the large and powerful Bridgerton family. She is now old enough to make her debut into the competitive marriage market of Regency, London and is a considerable favourite of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). A lot is riding on her finding a suitable match and what begins as a journey to find an adequate husband for her family’s image transforms into a powerful journey through lust, sexual desire, personal fulfilment, and love. All thanks to the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), who is also about to go on his own journey of self-discovery when he literally bumps into Daphne.
Before we dive into the show, I must sing the praises of this cast. Namely, Julie Andrews for being the Regency “Gossip Girl” I never knew I wanted, but will now cherish forever. Phoebe Dynevor is such a delightful discovery, embodying the strength and courage of a woman that has to put up with such nonsensical rules from a backwards society. She does excellent work giving us a sweet, ambitious, yet vulnerable heroine that is easy to root for and easy to love. As for her on-screen partner, Regé-Jean Page, well he woke up one morning and chose violence. This man was born to play a tragic romantic lead. The brooding, the arrogance, the swagger, it is everything. His Simon Basset would have the likes of Mr. Darcy running for the hills because Simon does not play around. Nicola Coughlan is a precious darling and I will hurt anyone who hurts her. She, alongside Ruby Parker and Claudia Jessie, bring a nice balance of levity and drama to the series. Finally, the last two women I want to shower with glory are: the incomparable Adjoa Andoh and Golda Rosheuvel who play Lady Danbury and Queen Charlotte, respectively. These two women made my heart sore. They looked fabulous, they slayed their lines and they raised the bar with each appearance. Their line delivery alone excited me to no end. Truly, everyone in this cast is amazing, but these are the few that needed to be praised the most.
The series could have easily taken shape as many period dramas of its kind. Prim dialogue delivered with passionate whispers and pearl-clutching moments in the forms of chase kisses and brief hand-holding. However, Bridgerton takes it up a notch and injects a healthy dose of modern expectations. It’s a series that divorces itself from the conventions of the past and embraces a modern sensibility, dialogue doesn’t feel too old time-y, costumes are far more extravagant with wild colours and accessories, and also sex. While so much of the series does fall in line with basic expectations of a period dramas about marital responsibilities, a woman’s place in society and the overall suffocating structure of this culture. The show leans into a personable narrative; one that revolves around pleasure and embracing that sex and physical intimacy are things that not only a woman should consider when getting married, but should be aware of period. There is a very pointed message about how women (or I should say young girls), are ushered into these situations without having a single idea of what it is to be wed, and what is done in the marriage bed. It’s rather progressive to have this narrative actually playout and have our leading lady confront the norms that have left her so vulnerable.
The show also attempts other things to be progressive, and one of those things is its casting. This show has done something that is not entirely new but is certainly taking hold of period dramas as of late and that is racial diversity in largely white-dominated narratives. Similar to another Rhimes produced period piece, Still Star-Crossed, the London depicted in Bridgerton is racially diverse. Queen Charlotte, inspired by her real-life ancestry, is played by a Black actress. Simon and his guardian Lady Danbury are Black. Marina, the Featherington’s new ward, and distant relation is Black. Bit players in the supporting cast and background actors are BIPOC as well. However, as a Black woman myself, I appreciated the gesture, but this isn’t it.
The majority of the speaking roles and on-screen presence is dedicated to the white cast. And while there is an acknowledgment of the rather unusual presence of Black people in high society there is no grand effort to integrate BIPOC into the larger narrative. The series if it were to continue will follow the Bridgertons and it is they who should have been racebent entirely. They are the ones driving the narrative. The Featheringtons would have been a poor choice to racebend as they are the lesser family (ridiculed for most of the series), and it would be effectively bad to see the happy and stable family be white and the Featheringtons who are anything but be racebent.
The show hinges upon modern-day sensibilities to liven up the narrative. Otherwise, the series would be yet another period drama set in the very white Regency era that is devoid of depth or intrigue. While the producers and casting director did a fine job casting the few BIPOC characters we do have on-screen, there is much more that could have been done to make this feel like more than a hollow gesture. It is also telling that racial diversity is often just Black and white to some creatives. There is a distinct lack of Asian identities, specifically South Asians, as recent statistics of London have shown that they are quite a large demographic, even surpassing Black identities. The Bridgertons could have been Pakistani or Indian. Really, any ethnic minority would have fit neatly into the narrative if the creatives wanted it to. Like Still Star-Crossed, the casting is never remarked upon and we all know that fair Verona would not have been that colourful or that open to non-white identities.
Overall, the show is fun. There are tons of great performances, fantastic writing and spectacular visuals. Truly the craftsmanship on display is astounding and a remarkable feat to make a period drama so exciting and lively for audiences that normally wouldn’t sit for it. It is the perfect anecdote to a harsh and troubling year. And of course, Julie Andrews dishing out drama and spilling tea is something we all should be very grateful for. Every frame does not go to waste and even the music, which are orchestral arrangements of current pop songs, is put to great use. There is a lot of attention given to create a unique world that really delivers on the romance, scandals and quick-wit that has been so prominently advertised to us. I mean seriously, when an orchestral arrangement of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” started playing over a lavish ballroom scene, I nearly fainted with joy.
There is a lot to love about Bridgerton, but the areas in which it fumbles may be too great to overlook for some. For how good the show is, and how forward-thinking it wants to be in some areas, there is a little part of me that wishes that the series showrunner and producers went further.