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This year, Regency romance Bridgerton bested The Queen’s Gambit, Tiger King and The Witcher to become Netflix’s most watched original program, hitting well over 80 million households within just a month of its debut. This came as a surprise to the streamer, which had projected a smaller audience for the series, despite its Shonda Rhimes pedigree and racially inclusive storytelling. Sure, sweeping (and chaste) costume dramas have traditionally defined prestige TV, but it seems even populist Netflix underestimated the far-reaching charms of a good bodice-ripper.
Bridgerton‘s inevitable backlash arrived almost as promptly, with detractors hoisting their proverbial glasses up the proverbial nasal bridge to declare the series — gasp! — historically inaccurate. Twitter threads and explainer pieces soon appeared scolding the show’s use of corsets-as-metaphor, its ahistorically vibrant costuming and its characters’ implausible sexual innocence.
Such fussy dissections, however, miss the candied appeals of historical revisionism. Genre-busting shows like Bridgerton, Apple TV+’s Dickinson and Hulu’s 2020 Emmy-nominated The Great are not intended to paint an educational portrait of the past, but to satirize the literary pretensions of historicized art. Emmy-eligible series Bridgerton and Dickinson act as both pastiche and parody, honoring the conventions of Masterpiece Theatre-style costume dramas while explicitly making fun of them.
Based on Julia Quinn’s series of romance novels, Bridgerton takes place in Georgian-era London in 1813, centering on the aristocratic Bridgerton family, their affluent peers and the hierarchical high-society bon ton culture that restricts their marital choices and, thus, their lifelong fates. Within the first few moments of the pilot, the teenage Bridgerton daughters and their best frenemies, the neighboring Featherington girls, are presented at Queen Charlotte’s Ball like prized pigs come to market, awaiting who the impetuous royal (Golda Rosheuvel) will declare the most eligible bachelorette of the social season.
While this event did occur annually, Bridgerton heightens the moment’s fairy-tale indulgence by emphasizing the princess-like quality of its delicate protagonist and the ugly-stepsister quotient of her inelegant sisters and acquaintances. Of course, the young beauty becomes the queen’s favorite little doll, and yet despite this validation through commodification, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) still wants to marry for love. Mid-season, however, the fairy-tale illusion shatters, and Bridgerton succeeds in critiquing not only outmoded marriage plots, but the oh-so-honorable modesty of its TV forebears as well. (Even rare and farcical names like “Bridgerton” and “Featherington” ridicule American perceptions of British gentility.)
Dickinson, on the other hand, is an ethereal and comic take on the early life of mid-19th century New England poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld), a woman who changed literature forever with her expressive existentialism and creative punctuation — but not until well past her death. Instead of homing in on her domestic life and possible agoraphobia in middle age, as other writers have done, showrunner Alena Smith imagines Dickinson as a rebellious 20-something with a foul temperament and pulsing lust for her sister-in-law (as the real-life Dickinson may have had). Rapper Wiz Khalifa plays Death himself, roaming Dickinson’s town in a black carriage pulled by spectral horses. They smoke weed together.
Dickinson amplifies the surrealism by incorporating historical footnotes into the dialogue, drawing pointed comparisons between the wellness and social media fads of the 1850s and 2020s and hiring cult performers like John Mulaney and Zosia Mamet to play absurd versions of real-life historical figures without shifting their modern personae. Where another creator might have stuck to the facts to retell the story of Dickinson’s emerging adulthood, Smith interprets her subject’s life with playfulness and transgression to remind today’s viewers that the younger writer’s internal struggles were probably no different from their own.
Thus, vitally, these types of programs hold up a fun-house mirror to our present-day culture. Each is a study of female genius, and in toying with modern humor and language, they render the past more accessible to us. These stories are sensorial feasts, full of silken frocks, verdant gardens, propulsive tracks and simplified race and gender relations: In other words, they’re fantasies that allow modern-day viewers to relive and rewrite the injustices of history on our own terms.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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