Is there something about the cold weather and the dark nights that make us yearn for the petticoat-wearing, ball-dancing, etiquette-minding past? The darkening months are synonymous with Poldark and Downton Abbey but a new, sexier period drama has risen to take their place. Based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, Bridgerton is Netflix’s first series made in collaboration with Shonda Rhimes’ production company, Shondaland. Although Rhimes did not create Bridgerton, her name’s mere association with this project promised that it would be a far hotter, sexier version of Downton Abbey.
The show takes place amid aristocratic, 18th century London society. It is the Season, a weird The Hunger Games-style ritual where pretty, eligible girls from aristocratic families fight over the country’s best marriage offers. Rather than any sort of fisticuffs, the young ladies must make themselves seem more eligible than the others. If they fail to find a suitable husband or disgrace themselves, they will be quickly cast aside, cursed to be an old maid forever. Bridgerton focuses on two families who both have daughters embarking on their first Season.
The Bridgertons are a family of eight children, who are all rather conveniently named in alphabetical order. Their father died years ago and the eldest, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) is too busy courting a pretty opera singer to entertain looking for a wife, so the weight of responsibility lands on the eldest sister’s head, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). She is quickly deemed the diamond of the Season. The neighbouring family, the Featheringtons, are in more dire straits. No one seems to be interested in any of Lady Portia’s (Polly Walker) children. But, in a Gossip Girl-style twist, someone is writing pamphlets under the pseudonym of Lady Whistledown (the voice of Julie Andrews), spreading closely guarded secrets throughout respectable society, threatening to cause chaos in the already dramatic marriage mart.
The show is a whipped marshmallow dream cake. In every scene, it is saccharine and sugared in a thick layer of artifice. The scenes are drenched in colours like powder pink, Parma violet and butter yellow. This is the dreamland Alice wished she found herself in when she fell down the rabbit hole. Wisteria drips and frames the Bridgerton’s London pad, orange blossom and jasmine twirl around the bannisters for each ball. Every possible imperfection of nature has been airbrushed out. This world is the prettiest it could be, from the gorgeous cast members to the bright, shiny costumes.
It is dramatised fluff and incredibly fun to watch, but it lacks the romance and the depth of character that made Austen’s novels memorable.
Technically it is set in 1812, but Bridgerton really takes place in a beautiful fantasy land; a point which makes the traditional racist yammering of “it’s not historically accurate” – because some of the cast are people of colour – nonsensical. Did they really listen to covers of Ariana Grande’s tunes in the 1800s? Or music composed by Shostakovitch, a Soviet composer? History holds no real weight here, and showrunner Chris Van Dusen’s imagined regency period fits the show’s dramatics well.
Bridgerton may be wilfully ahistorical, but after a year of forced celibacy, something to get us hot under the collar is perhaps what we all need. This is naughty Austen. Daphne and Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings (Regé Jean Page) pretend to develop an attachment, allowing Daphne to be the most eligible unmarried lady and giving Simon the chance to be left alone. The delicacy and intricacy of romance are quickly forgone in favour of a fumble in a garden and an episode-length shag-a-thon, which is undeniably sexy, but hardly memorable. Some of the best moments in period dramas are when the love interests lock eyes and are suddenly lost for words; it would be improper to rip the clothing off each other. This romantic tension gives us all a flutter, but is precariously reliant on stolen glances and sexual chemistry. Unfortunately, no matter how many times the Bridgertons bonk, Daphne and Simon’s chemistry is about as forced as flowers growing in the hothouse in January.
Bridgerton takes female desire and pleasure seriously. Even though the sex scenes are mostly just missionary in different locations, the show still delivers on the promised spice. But despite Bridgerton’s sex-positive credentials, a rather infamous scene of male consent being utterly violated is somehow considered a moment of female triumph. The fantasy world quickly splinters, and it’s challenging to reconcile Bridgerton‘s carefree fun with its ill-conceived toxic sex scenes.
In Austen’s Northanger Abbey, there’s a moment when heroine Catherine reads too many titillating gothic novels, causing her to believe that her suitor’s father murdered his wife. Bridgerton is one of those gothic romances. It is dramatised fluff and incredibly fun to watch, but it lacks the romance and the depth of character that made Austen’s novels memorable. Like a sugar meringue, Bridgerton is sweet but hollow and superficial.
Bridgerton is available on Netflix.
Words by Lucy Clarke