Creator: Chris Van Dusen
Producer: Shonda Rhimes
Cast: Adjoa Andoh, Lorraine Ashbourne, Jonathan Bailey, Ruby Barker, Sabrina Bartlett, Joanna Bobin, Harriet Cains, Bessie Carter, Nicola Coughlan, Phoebe Dynevor, Ruth Gemmell
Streaming Platform: Netflix
There is only so much sense we can anticipate from Bridgerton when one of its main male characters is introduced thrusting-butt-first into this world of blush and bum. Based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels, set in London’s high-society during the Regency Era of the early 1800s, this is the story of the Bridgertons, a family without family planning — 4 male and 4 female offspring — and emphatically that of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) who finds herself of marriageable age i.e. the age of balls, both the ceremonial ones you must pirouette along and the exhausting ones you must sweat through.
The above-mentioned thrusting bum belongs to Daphne’s brother, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who is fixated with an aria singer — a most disreputable affair. The 8 hour-long episodes weave in bits and pieces of the other adult Bridgertons, from a wide-eyed threesome to wholesome affection. All of this plays out to violin solos of contemporary songs (Taylor Swift’s ‘Wildest Dreams’ and John Legends ‘All Of Me’, among others) and a voice-over from a certain Lady Whistledown, an anonymous woman who writes the scathing gossip column, and is read by everyone from the Queen to the tween.
The overarching question of who Lady Whistledown is, much like the question of who the titular Gossip Girl is, is never an immediate threat in the plot, and so the (rather predictable) answer to the question comes and goes with little impact.
The show, despite having sweep, doesn’t evoke sweep. You only see the beauty, or what is postured as beauty. You never feel it.
The other pressing concern is that of Daphne Bridgerton. The first half of the show details her courting, and her marriage, and the second half is the marital mess she finds herself in, with the Duke (Regé-Jean Page). The “mess” is so wispy, that all it takes is one rain-soaked monologue to solve it. It’s an absurdity that, very effectively, passes for entertainment. An absurdity that is woven into the fabric of the time, an absurdity that only follows the logic of entertainment.
The greatest issue with the series however is its pacing. It neither has the taut meditativeness and detailing of The Crown, nor does it have the episodic frenzy of Gossip Girl or Rhimes’ own Grey’s Anatomy and the gloriously plotted How To Get Away With Murder, where each episode deals with a unique, time-bound issue that needs to be solved with immediacy while the larger character arcs are being plotted thoroughly. The languorous pacing of the flashbacks doesn’t help, since the show, despite having sweep, doesn’t evoke sweep. You only see the beauty, or what is postured as beauty. You never feel it.
The silhouettes of the ball gown reminded me of my grandmother’s nighties, but with bustiers that make the breasts look as if they will explode through the tight cloth. There is something to be said about either the fashion sense of the time or the representation of the fashion sense of the time. It is really quite bland. The stitched hairlines with woolen wigs look tacky, and precious jewelry looks like pieces of crisp biscuits coated with silver foiling. The men with mutton chops look hot in spite, not because of the styling of the beard. They are better left shirtless and longing. (And perhaps, together. Dave Opie, Digital Spy’s Deputy TV Editor writes, “Netflix’s Bridgerton has a gay sex problem… There’s not enough of it!” The point is that most of the butt-baring in this show is done with only two heterosexual couples, and really, there are only so many different ways to light and frame a bum without evoking erotic exhaustion.)
What this world does differently, and delightfully is two things. One is to bring in representation into the Regency without making a whole lot of fuss about it — as if it were just the way it is, and not a liberal-progressive imagination imposed on an illiberal-conservative world. Of course the argument that this is an erasure of the racial violence the empire inhered is valid, but much like David’s gayness wasn’t fetishized into a plot point in Schitt’s Creek, here too, blackness isn’t a plot point that deserves discussion or diatribe, and this creative choice, while debatable, is laudable. Even Daphne’s agency is given voice to here, even if it is within the strictures of society. Here is a heroine who refuses to be told whom to marry, but decides that marriage and motherhood is necessary to womanhood anyways.
The second thing Bridgerton does well is to discuss head-on one of the many thorny issues with that (and perhaps, this) time — the lack of sex education. Again, there’s no piety or messaging attached to this. It is initially funny to see adolescent and young girls wondering how children are conceived, till they are thrust into the pleasures and horrors of sex, without protection or precaution. (I recall a curious anecdote a literature professor told me in college. That the Victorian era was so muffled sexually that they would have to use tablecloths to cover the legs of the table, lest the men hump the table in repressed desire.)
Now, the summation of its follies and jollies, is a show that is at once radical, and comforting. The intention to watch more, and want more is built into the plotting, even if it means a half-hearted, full-throated wait for the next season of more courting, costuming, gossiping, and a wider ensemble of the bronzed bum.