The last big show of the year might just be its most satisfying. Sam Brooks reviews Bridgerton, the latest from Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes.
If you told me, 15 years ago, that newcomer Shonda Rhimes would be one of television’s biggest players, I wouldn’t believe you. But, after the juggernaut that was, and continues to be, Grey’s Anatomy, Rhimes has soldiered on with compelling dramas that manage to go off the rails, logically, but keep viewers hooked with a mixture of strong performances and a consistent, fierce, progressive bent that moves with both political and social currents. While her shows might drop from the cultural conversation, they continue to bring in millions of viewers across the world.
Bridgerton marks Rhimes’ first move into period drama, and her first Netflix series of 12 (!) planned for the service. Although her protege Chris Van Dusen (Scandal) takes on showrunner duties, it’s a Shondaland show from bonnet to toe. The series is adapted from Julia Quinn’s bestselling romance novel series, set in the high society of Regency London (that’s the early 19th century) and following the prosperous Bridgerton family as they fall in and out of both bodices and love.
The elevator pitch for Bridgerton is simple: it’s Downton Abbey meets Gossip Girl. That’s a pretty large Venn diagram that should suck up a fair chunk of Netflix’s demographic, especially in the gaping maw of free time that exists for many between Christmas and New Year’s. The longer pitch is no less scintillating: at the start of each social season, a few weeks where matches are made and marriages formed, Queen Charlotte (a delightfully curt Golda Rosheuvel) anoints an “incomparable”, the most desired person of the season. This particular season it’s the sheltered Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of that particular upwardly mobile brood. When her brother Antony (Jonathan Bailey) tanks all of her potential matches, it looks like her social standing will be in tatters.
But alas! She’s saved when Duke Simon (Regé-Jean Page) walks into the picture. Essentially an angrier version of Mr Darcy, the Duke doesn’t want to get married, so he proposes a deal: he’ll court her in order to bolster her social standing, and in return, he’ll be relieved of having to deal with the matriarchs of “the ton” throwing their daughters at him all seasons. To complicate things even more, Lady Whistledown, a pseudonym for someone who lives in “the ton”, keeps spreading unverified, but completely true, gossip throughout the town via her pamphlets, which are shared with us via voiceover, courtesy of one Dame Julie Andrews and her plummy, knowing tones. That’s the Gossip Girl part of the Venn diagram well and truly covered.
This all happens within the first episode, and while it sets up an arc that is very familiar if you’ve seen any romance drama, Bridgerton is an engrossing show. It’s stuffed full of characters, intrigue and at least one breathtaking moment per episode. If there’s one thing that Shondaland does better than anybody, it’s getting you invested in people you might not necessarily care about in the real world: the characters here are largely privileged, very rich, and their problems are about securing lineage and social standing. It’s escapist fantasy at its finest.
Escapist though it may be, Rhimes also uses melodrama as a Trojan horse for something deeper. While I wouldn’t say that Bridgerton is deeply concerned about either gender or race, it’s definitely touching on both in ways that make it more than just an empty meal. This is most obvious with race, with many characters, including Queen Charlotte, being played by Black actors. While this was originally criticised/praised (depending on where you stand) as colour-blind casting, there’s actually a reason given about midway through the series: Queen Charlotte, who was, according to certain historians, of African descent via the Portuguese royal family, bestowed titles on the Duke of Hastings, who happened to be Black. While it’s not explicitly commented on further in the series, it’s refreshing to see actors of colour in period drama, and there’s a fun alternate history vibe to see those actors in positions of power; I can’t imagine another period drama where a bunch of white girls are curtsying before a Black queen.
More subtly, but no less powerfully, is how the show addresses gender, and it definitely is more a gentle address than it is a tackle. Rhimes’ work is full of women who are quick with a comeback and ready to stand up for themselves, and Bridgerton is no exception. Where the show differs, though, is the range of tactics these women use to stay afloat: there’s a lot more scheming here, but also a lot more self-actualisation. A core throughline of the series involves women finding their strength despite the constraints of their society; this is most winningly done with Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) who staves off her impending matchmaking season by trying to unearth the identity of Lady Whistledown, weaponising her own studious intelligence rather than settling for what she believes to be the undesirable state of marriage.
Where Bridgerton really shines, though, are those moments where the show’s competence tips over into something sublime, something that seems to come from pure inspiration. There’s a moment late in Bridgerton that pays off so spectacularly, a sequence where one character is exorcised of all the ills that her society has poisoned her with, that you’d have to be made of stone not to be moved. It’s here that Rhimes’ experience and extreme competence pays off: she’s got all the building blocks nailed down, and knows how to build a gorgeous house with them.
It’s easy to underrate Shonda Rhimes, especially in today’s television landscape where performative edge and prestige pedigree can be mistaken for quality. To create a show that is so engrossing, progressive within the constraints of heavily mainstream television, and just so damn satisfying, is not something to be taken lightly. Especially at the end of this hell year, we all deserve a rich, plum, eight-episode series to roll into what – god and Netflix willing – can only be a better year. Hopefully with a second season of this show to go with it.
The first season of Bridgerton is available now on Netflix