Bridgerton, the exuberant Netflix crowd pleaser released its second season about a month ago. The show is returning two years after being enthusiastically welcomed by a loud but confused audience that couldn't understand why it fell in love with a period drama that did not behave in stereotypical period drama fashion. Back then, the internet was flooded with a variety of think pieces, going into sometimes academic and other times absurdly comical lengths to analyse what exactly was it that we were enjoying so much in a show about the aristocracy in the Regency era that couldn't stop romancing and/or having sex with each other.
Meanwhile people who had read 'regency romance' or 'bodice-rippers', a sub-genre in romance, couldn't stop laughing at this bewildered reaction to the show because a genre that is so heavily frowned upon by literature and media consumers, and society at-large, was finally getting an honest reaction from everyone involved – which was that of pure bafflement and hesitant fascination. 'It is weird and dumb, but I'm kinda obsessed' was the general consensus.
Bridgerton managed to seduce the best of us with its bright, saturated costumes, melodramatic storylines and a shameless disregard for historical accuracy. It encouraged many to read up on the actual royal history and discover surprising bits about the etiquettes and the general lifestyle of the time, and learn more about architecture, thanks to the breathtaking set design. A controversial storyline in season 1 even managed to start heavy debates around the boundaries of consent and what the correct definition for sexual assault and rape can be when dealing with the murky gray areas of consent, debates that went on for weeks (which is saying a lot in this social media age where attention spans have decreased).
I wouldn't necessarily declare Bridgerton as a 'cultural phenomenon' because this year, when the second season was released, the previous baffled reaction was swapped with that of complete understanding. Like, the tone and pacing of the show suddenly made perfect sense to everyone. Sure, second season is better executed on multiple levels than the first one, which made it successful in getting across to the audience, but there's also very much a need for escapism in the zeitgeist right now, which the show fulfilled.
This time around, the escapism does not involve mythology, superheroes or any kind of magic. There's a craving for an escape from our current reality into one that looks and feels the same, only there's less capitalism and more generational wealth involved. It's the wish to escape into a reality where unprecedented levels of wealth inequality don't yet exist, climate crisis isn't taking place, there's no authoritarian government in power (although, mechanics of a monarchy are conveniently ignored) and there's definitely no war going on. It's the kind of escape where the characters' main concerns revolve solely around their social ranks, etiquettes and marriage prospects; and the writers' primary concern is filling every part of the frame with visual grandeur through elaborate costumes and lavish set designs. The story tends to be very straightforward with its presentation of melodrama and the plot tends to be filled with a variety of character theatrics and comedy moments. The aim is very simple – to entertain. And entertain it does!
This formula was mirrored in a recent HBO release The Gilded Age, that follows the New York high society during the titular era in America from 1870-90 when due to industrialisation the "new money", or people without generational wealth, were starting to take over the high society, going toe to toe with "old money". The show is created by Julian Fellowes and just like his previous melodrama, Downton Abbey, historical accuracy is only limited to superficial stuff. The flavour of melodrama is different here from Bridgerton – definitely less overt – but the aim for escapism is same in both the cases.
This need for escape into history has spilled into other parts of culture as well. In a couple of weeks, the annual Met Gala will be taking place – the biggest night in fashion, and the theme this year is 'In America: An Anthology of Fashion' for which, the dress code will be gilded glamour and white tie. Just like every year, the internet will be flooded with pictures and videos of celebrities marching down the steps of Met sporting the most extravagant gowns and eye-popping hair-makeup. But unlike the last few years, this year is going to be an ode to the Gilded Age. So, instead of avant-garde gowns, we'll be flooded with new-age rich folks, romanticizing wealth from the years gone by. And that will keep us, non-rich folks, pleasantly busy for following few days as we swing from laughing at memes one second to marvelling at couture gowns the next.
Unabashed fascination with the rich is in no way a new phenomenon. History has shown that in times of crisis, people always turned to glitz and glamour to get some respite from their dreary reality. In the past few years, our world has seen a variety of crises with a seemingly no end in sight. Even for the people who remained relatively untouched by the realities of the pandemic, like facing unemployment or homelessness, the collective declining mental health is not painting a pretty picture. So, when every few months, a new escapist trend emerges, it makes sense how we all collectively lose ourselves in the frivolous, meaningless distraction, and for this moment, period settings – specifically the Regency and Victorian era – seem to be the current fantasy in demand.
As of writing this piece, Netflix revealed that Bridgerton is the most-watched English language show on the streaming platform, HBO announced the casting for season 2 of The Gilded Age, and an entire pipeline of new releases of period dramas are waiting with baited breath to be released this year. Meanwhile, the fashion press is swamped with giving history lessons on the actual Gilded Age and all the lavish parties that era witnessed alongside making predictions for what the gala has in store for everyone. This may be the only form of frivolous indulgence common folk can afford, but, dear lord, we'll take what we can get!