Netflix has given us two gifts for the holiday season. The first is Shondaland’s scripted debut for the streamer, “Bridgerton,” a sexy, joyous, colorful update of the classic will-they-or-won’t-they Regency-era courting tale.
The second gift is imagining the hilarious mortification of cross-generational families across America sitting together and watching the show over the winter break, only to uncomfortably witness why, exactly, the show earns its TV-MA rating.
This is not a knock on the show! Did you know people have been having sex for, literally, forever? They have! That is why you’re here, reading this review! Surprise! But it’s not something your, ahem, traditional American family is going to expect as part of their holiday fare, especially if they tune in because of executive producer Shonda Rhimes’ immensely popular network shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” The key word in that sentence is “network” — as in “network standards and practices prevent full nudity and doing THAT on a staircase.” (If your family is French, go for it. There’s also a lot of smoking, which should make everyone who is Gallic tres heureux.)
Based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling series of romance novels, “Bridgerton” takes the tropes of the Regency romance — The fancy husband-hunting balls on glamorous estates! The pushy mothers desperate to pair off their daughters! The old ‘Oh, let’s PRETEND to fall in love so people leave us to our own devices’ scheme! The men with more money than sense! — and knocks them sideways, all set to a soundtrack of orchestral arrangements of Ariana Grande songs.
Eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) has received no less than the imprimatur of Queen Charlotte (Golda Roseuvel) as she makes her formal debut on London’s upper-class marriage market in 1813. Complicating matters is her eldest brother, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who is exceedingly overprotective of his mother and seven siblings as he takes the mantle of the wealthy family’s power after his father’s untimely death. Complicating matters even further for Daphne is the return to London of Duke Simon Bassett (Regé-Jean Page) who is rather rudely standoffish, and, not incidentally, possesses an incendiary level of hotness.
Will there be romantic antics between these gorgeous people as they are dressed in beautiful clothes in jaw-dropping homes? Will they all be narrated by Julie Andrews, giving voice to the haughty and impeccably sourced society gossip columnist Lady Whistledown? You bet. All well and good, this is how Regency romances go, someone removes a glove in mixed company and it’s a front page scandal.
But again, showrunner Chris Van Dusen has insured that this isn’t your typical Regency romance. The race-blind casting is a much-needed shift from traditional white-washed period storytelling. It’s a laudatory development and more than a gimmick, as the society’s diversity is explained by a storyline within the show. In addition, the women of “Bridgerton” actually learn the power of their own sexual agency, a modern social construct that enlivens the proceedings and is much more palatable than the usual Regency undercurrent of rich virgins being led to the marriage slaughterhouse with the hopes that the man lined up for them will be kind.
The giddy upheaval extends to the aesthetics, which are reason alone to watch the show. Each dress, accessory, and bejeweled accoutrement of the costumes is handmade, and based on the classic Jane Austen-y empire waist cut that’s instantly familiar from shows set in the Regency period. Costume designer Ellen Mirojnick employed hundreds of artisans to embellish from that traditional base using heightened colors, textures, and materials, and the result is show-stopping. The same kind of couture work came from production designer Will Hughes-Jones — in addition to the furniture, even the carpets in every scene are handmade in order to fit the expansive rooms where “Bridgerton” was shot.
While the settings are immaculate, there are some bumps in the storytelling. I have read Quinn’s “Bridgerton” series, and to do my due diligence before writing this review, I consulted with some people who watched the screeners of the show but haven’t read the novels — and this is where my hesitancy lies. Having spent thousands of pages with the characters — each of the siblings gets one hefty novel for their individual tale of romantic dalliances — I went into the series knowing, basically, who is who and from where their motivation stems.
But for those who haven’t been embedded in the Bridgerton world already — and even if you are — there are times the narrative isn’t clear. With eight Bridgerton siblings and assorted frenemies and enemies that intertwine with the family, there are so many characters and so much spectacle that who is doing what, where, and why, can become a muddle. One of the Bridgerton sisters is shipped off to the countryside — in the literal sense, not in the trying-to-hide-a-pregnancy sense — for almost the entire duration of the series. I forgot about her. I have read an entire book about her, and I still forgot about her.
There are about a dozen additional actors besides Dynevor and Page that deserve shoutouts for their engaging, deft performances; to do so would cause this review to reach doctoral thesis length, and don’t tempt me. Everyone is good — but there are just so many of them. I will say if Irish actress Nicola Coughlan doesn’t become America’s sweetheart after the Netflix trifecta of “Bridgerton,” “Derry Girls,” and the “Great British Baking Show: Holidays” special then Ireland may cut diplomatic ties with us and create a real problem for fellow diaspora member and President-elect Joe Biden. Maybe we can send them John Patrick Shanley?
A series, of course, should not need Talmudic knowledge of the foundational text in order for audiences to follow along, and this is a tangle for “Bridgerton” that may only be unraveled if the show is renewed for additional seasons and all the storylines can play out. For the time being, the fizzy fun and exuberant look of the series wins audiences over despite the narrative overcomplexity, even for those who can’t tell the three eldest good-looking twenty-something brunette white guy Bridgerton brothers apart for the first several episodes. (This shouldn’t need to be said, but here’s the SparkNotes version: Eldest Anthony is opera singer guy; No. 2 Benedict is artist guy; and No. 3 Colin is “oh God don’t marry HER, she’s got a newsstand worth of issues” guy.)
The meme-ification of a horrendous year has resulted in one piece of pop culture after another being declared as “what 2020 needs” in order to be salvaged. Let’s be frank, a TV show is not going to remedy the relentless onslaught of misery that this year brought. But “Bridgerton” is a respite, and one that serves to remind people that just on the other side of this hellscape is a place where people fall in love, where friends and families can be together, and where everyone can take leisurely walks in parks without the fear that every incoming jackass without a mask is trying to kill them. Right now that world may only exist in our imagination, but watching “Bridgerton” makes it seem tantalizingly close.
All eight episodes of “Bridgerton” will be available to stream December 25 on Netflix.