At the end of an awful and exhausting year, let us give thanks for it at least having the good grace to end with “Bridgerton.”
Based on Julia Quinn’s romance novel series, this confectionary treat of a show knows exactly what you might want from it and delivers those fantasies on a silver platter with a dashing (and even surprisingly sexy) smile.
The new Netflix drama travels to 19th century England to tell familiar enough narratives of headstrong women and the gruff men who try their damnedest not to love them. A straightforward adaptation would’ve undoubtedly worked well enough; swoony Regency era romances have been reliable crowd-pleasers dating back to…well, Regency era. But as Shonda Rhimes’ first scripted series for Netflix, “Bridgerton” instead mixes age-old tropes and distinct Shondaland sensibilities together to make, as its characters might say, a formidable love match.
The eight episodes of this addictive first season fly by in a flurry of stolen glances and whispered rumors, wounded pride and star-crossed love, lavish balls and string quartet renditions of songs that, upon closer inspection, are definitely Ariana Grande. As per the demands of its genre, “Bridgerton” is mostly concerned with the romantic entanglements of society’s upper crust. It does, however, throw in an extra mystery in the form of “Lady Whistledown,” an anonymous gossip columnist — voiced by none other than Julie Andrews — whose juicy updates keep everyone on their toes. (I can’t say anything more about Lady Whistledown’s identity other than it does come to light by season’s end, and that I greatly enjoyed the reveal even though I saw it coming from a mile away.)
Created by “Scandal” producer Chris Van Dusen, “Bridgerton” both embraces its genre’s roots and happily deviates from them. In an immediately noticeable and welcome departure from the usual period romance tradition, the cast of “Bridgerton” is deliberately inclusive, featuring several prominent Black characters whose actors would be relegated to the scullery in another adaptation. When a parade of white women arrive at court to bow in front of their Black queen (Golda Rosheuvel), it’s a powerful moment that purposefully upends its audience’s perception of how that scene is “supposed” to look. The only time this is acknowledged within the show itself is when someone briefly implies that the queen’s relationship with the white King George is what ushered in a more tolerant world. This is, to say the least, a rather huge revelation to drop in passing, raising far more questions than the season ultimately answers. (How many generations have lived in this transformed society? How do Black families in the show have titles and generational wealth? How did one interracial relationship solve racism?!) Having brought it up, the show would do better in future seasons to explain the confusing reasoning for its reality.
This first season, however, kicks into high gear once the queen’s nephew Simon (Regé-Jean Page) sweeps into town with a devastatingly handsome glare and a chip on his shoulder so huge that it’s a wonder he can walk at all. Played with scorching intensity by Page, Simon is both a powerful duke and a classic rake resisting every invitation to mature, much to the annoyance of his surrogate mother, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh, turning in the show’s most deliciously fun performance as its resident grand dame). He’s even sworn never to marry— but his resolve is tested once he quite literally runs into Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) while she’s busy scanning the room for potential husbands.
Daphne is the archetype of a romance novel heroine: a smart, determined woman with delicate features that please jealous suitors and frustrate her jealous peers to no end. Her brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), now the head of the Bridgerton family after their father’s recent death, can’t understand her desperation to get married until she reminds him of her raison d’etre as eldest daughter: to bolster their family’s fortunes by marrying well.
Daphne and Simon circle each other throughout the series with eyes equally wary and full of longing, which is great fun to watch unfold. But “Bridgerton” reveals its true strengths once it allows them to explicitly acknowledge what so many period romances of this ilk tend to dodge, namely that these characters don’t just want to marry: they want to have sex.
This isn’t altogether shocking material for Shondaland to mine for its first drama series absent broadcast constraints. Even the company’s network dramas, from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Scandal,” quickly normalized their characters having and talking about sex in ways both casual and scintillating. And so “Bridgerton,” featuring just as sprawling and photogenic a cast as either of those shows, doesn’t see the need to remain as chaste as its upper crust characters strive to be at their daily teas. Its men have sex out of wedlock almost as a necessity before marriage, mostly because they can. Meanwhile, women like Daphne remain oblivious until their wedding nights, even as they can feel the exquisite agony of wanting to be close to someone whose very touch sets them on fire. In some of the series’ best and most insightful moments, it highlights this troubling imbalance with sharp clarity. The utter lack of real sex education for women doesn’t just keep them in the dark; it keeps them from being able to understand what they want, need or could possibly have.
Making these consequences plain immediately set “Bridgerton” apart from the countless other period dramas that end with a kiss, or else fade to black the second courtship could take a turn for the sexual. Following in the footsteps of something like “Outlander,” “Bridgerton” does not share that particular coy instinct. Still, its sex scenes are rarely included just for the sake of it. When they arrive, they’re serving the story just as much as they’re serving the audience that always wondered if Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennet’s chemistry translated beyond polite society to behind closed doors.
Not every story needs sex in order to be romantic. But “Bridgerton” demonstrates a keen and refreshing understanding of all the ways in which sex can complicate and enrich love — even, or maybe even especially, when its characters don’t.
“Bridgerton” premieres Friday, December 25 on Netflix.