Inside Shonda Rhimes' First Netflix Series 'Bridgerton': "We're Not Making Your Grandmother's Period Piece"

BRIDGERTON
LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

'Bridgerton,' a sprawling drama set in Regency-era England, is based on the hugely popular book series, which Rhimes devoured and was desperate to develop. Her longtime producing partner, Betsy Beers, admits that she was initially skeptical. “And I was clearly, totally and absolutely wrong,” Beers says with a laugh.

At long last, Shondaland is readying its landing in the streaming era.

Up first, from Shonda Rhimes' nine-figure Netflix deal is Bridgerton, a sweeping Regency-era period piece set to debut Christmas Day on the service. Though the project bears Shondaland vet Chris Van Dusen's name as its creator and showrunner, it was Rhimes who found and quickly devoured the popular romance novels on which the series is based.

"I remember I was almost scaring people, like, 'We have to get these crazy romance novels -- they're hot and they're sexy and they're really interesting,'" says Rhimes. That the multi-book collection from author Julia Quinn had an expansive web of characters and entry points as well as a fervent international fanbase made Rhimes that much more confident in its streaming potential.

Still, Rhimes' longtime producing partner Betsy Beers and Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos both acknowledge that they were initially skeptical, in part because it was a genre neither had dabbled much in. "And I was clearly, totally and absolutely wrong," says Beers with a laugh.

As for Van Dusen, he wasn't expecting for a massive period piece to land on his plate, having spent his entire career prior devoted to hospital dramas (Grey's Anatomy) and political intrigue series (Scandal). "I'll admit I had to look over my shoulder, like, 'Is she really talking to me?'" he says of the initial conversation with Rhimes, who sat him down in her office and suggested he'd be perfect to run the series. "But Shonda seems to have an innate ability to see things that other people don't see, even in themselves."

Of course, Van Dusen would need to get busy, having not yet read the Bridgerton book series. He did so immediately and fell in love with the stories. "They had all elements I love: romance, sexiness and intrigue," he says, "all of this with a super funny, delightful family at its heart." And with Rhimes attached, the TV adaptation -- which would be shot across the pond in the U.K. -- was bound to be inclusive in its casting, fresh in its look and timely in its storylines as well.

"Period shows tend to be a little conservative and a little traditional," says the showrunner, who reveals his marching orders were to make this effort as relatable to a modern audience as possible, something he was able to do through explorations of race, gender, sexuality and class.

Put another way, per Van Dusen: "We're not making your grandmother's period show."