Bridgerton Assessment: Shonda Rhimes’ gossipy Netflix romp bites off greater than it will probably chew
The first episode of Bridgerton, the new Netflix drama about London high society, wastes little time and shows that it is a Shonda Rhimes-sponsored series – there are dramatic cliffhangers, scandalous romances and loads of gossip. It’s a catnip for fans of the mega-producer’s hugely popular series like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. But this adaptation of Julia Quinn’s novels also seeks to rejuvenate the British costume genre, in part by incorporating sweaty, sometimes lawn-like sex, presumably to prove that those stuffy, flared dresses and well-tailored suits easily slide off their bodies can and can when it is time now.
In fact, much of Bridgerton will act like a clutching pearl or eyebrow raising exercise, depending on the audience. At the center of this frenzy is the interracial romance between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Bassett (Regé-Jean Page), a young debutante, or the Duke of Hastings, whose affair is not much discussed because of the fact that it is him goes black and she’s white, but because, like every other character on this show, someone else goes. Oddly enough, showrunner Chris Van Dusen decided to adapt the series with a mixed couple, with almost no mention of the 1813 race in London.
It’s an interesting decision, especially given the albeit more modern reflection of blackness in Britain in director Steve McQueen’s Small Ax series, in which black Britons struggle daily to regain their own humanity. But Bridgerton is doing everything possible to present a world where this fight does not exist, which may turn some viewers away. For those interested in the Shondaland aspect of it all – a landscape that is ambitious at best and mythical at worst – they will be amazed by the series’ relentless escape.
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Bridgerton is focused on feverish preparations for an upcoming ball where single women like Daphne can be paired up with potential husbands. Being part of a filthy, wealthy, high profile family, hence the series’ title, puts immense pressure on her to be married – and of course there are a number of suitors vying for her attention. But it’s Simon who ultimately gets her attention, partly because he’s devastatingly handsome and partly because he’s emotionally unavailable.
Just before the ever-present hustle and bustle of romanticizing the venomous male ego that’s too cool for love, Bridgerton examines Simon’s life in more depth, revealing one full of repressed shame and shame arising from a challenging childhood and relationship with his Father come from. But that’s all it takes to provoke a scuttlebutt when Simon stops pulling his feet and Daphne makes a suggestion.
This is also thanks to Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), the narrator of the series, similar to today’s National Enquirer in that she mysteriously published in a newsletter all the juicy details about the inner workings of each character’s personal life, which they devour eagerly publish. And, as with any addictive narrative bordering on a soap opera, we watch them become increasingly invested in “news” that are not their own.
Meanwhile, there is more talk of Daphne’s brothers, particularly Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and Benedict (Luke Thompson), who are both single and make inappropriate romantic choices and shame the family name. As much as Bridgerton wants to be progressive, it doesn’t dare portray a high-profile British family who are not bound by social demands and their own reputation. It is still peripherally committed to a certain sense of reality.
That opens the story for Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), one of the few black characters in the series who vacillates from her own humiliation as part of a family she wants to marry for reasons completely different from Daphne’s. It’s an enigmatic story that never feels entirely satisfying, as it’s in the midst of a largely white extended family that leaves it practically unguarded from the judgmental Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale), a particularly gossipy tailor from France. The argument between the two women makes the fact that Marina has no real allies even more apparent in a series that demands that every character have at least one person who sincerely takes root for them, or they will be devastated by society. Marina doesn’t have a lot of safety net.
Bridgerton has no concerns about who the audience should turn their attention to, supporting characters are doomed: Daphne and Simon. The series is at its core about its romance as it meticulously undermines the archaic gender roles and compulsions associated with the genre and infuses it with relatively progressive feminist notes as well as a flair that comes not only from the plot but also from the story of Sara Fischer’s exuberant Production design.
But Van Dusen and his team seem to be biting off more than they can chew by giving each of their characters, brought to life by a charming cast, a violent storyline that in some cases is tormented until the end of the season. Add to this the melodrama that draws those with a particular palate for this type of fare, like Downton Abbey and The Crown, despite its shortcomings, but others may not be able to overcome its weaknesses in order to enjoy the operatic antics . Bridgerton is ultimately flamboyantly decent.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
Bridgerton premiered Friday December 25th on Netflix.