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Courtship is a competitive sport in Netflix’s new period drama Bridgerton, set in Regency-era England. The eligible men and women of the moneyed class are its players, who need every edge — beauty, title, wealth and charm — to stand out from their rivals. But the attribute that matters most, especially for the female contenders, is reputation. A debutante’s standing might be increased by a favorable review from the queen (Golda Rosheuvel) — here, an impatient layabout who finds occasional relief from her chronic boredom by betting on which young woman will nab the season’s most promising match. But one’s rank might also be downgraded by rumors, particularly those spread by Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), anonymous chronicler of the secrets and scandals of London’s upper crust.
With its Jane Austen-meets-Gossip Girl vibe, Bridgerton — the first series to come out of executive producer Shonda Rhimes’ move to Netflix — seems like it should have the words “guilty pleasure” written all over it. Created by Chris Van Dusen and adapted from Julia Quinn’s book series, the eight-part debut season certainly looks and sounds like a lavish confection. The production’s visual ethos is Etsy-princess fantasy with just a hint of unearthly twinkle: blingy costumes that sparkle with every step and breath, gardens and greenery that seem transported from a different planet, string quartets that play contemporary bangers, and castle and manor interiors so ornate they might make the Vatican seethe in jealousy. (The slight unreality also makes the show’s color-blind casting — this is a world in which racism has been eradicated — less of a distraction than in many similar recent productions.)
Air date: Dec 25, 2020
But the series truly dazzles because of its smart weaving of feminist critique throughout its marriage plot, which doesn’t just sit atop the proceedings but shapes the storylines themselves. A sex-positive bodice-ripper should be a redundancy … but Bridgerton points up how little of that genre we actually get.
At the series’ outset, sheltered Daphne Bridgerton (an excellent Phoebe Dynevor), in her first year participating in the Husband Games, only seeks a “love marriage.” The queen has deemed Daphne a “flawless” candidate, but the last person she’s interested in is the man every mother in town hopes will soon become her son-in-law: Simon (Regé-Jean Page), a bona fide duke and the series’ outwardly presumptuous, secretly soft-hearted Mr. Darcy. Despite their mutual dislike — their meet-cute is more meet-cranky — Daphne and Simon agree to fake a relationship. For her part, it’s to raise her profile after her bumbling brother Antony (Jonathan Bailey) tanks it, and a duke’s interest is sure to give the other eligible bachelors in town FOMO. For his part, he just needs a break from all the mothers desperately pushing their daughters on him.
To the surprise of no one who’s seen more than three rom-coms in their lives, Daphne and Simon discover halfway through their ruse that they rather enjoy each other’s company. A romance is built or broken on the believability of the obstacles keeping the predestined lovers apart, and Bridgerton‘s intricate plotting, sprawling cast and careful characterizations ensure that the impediments to their union feel organic and compelling — even when an antagonist’s motivation is pure pettiness. Most notably, the season’s happy ending isn’t necessarily the wedding, but a woman’s long-term satisfaction in her marriage.
In fact, the freshest elements of the show pertain to its observations of how patriarchal traditions have real and devastating effects on its female characters. Unmarried men like Antony and Simon — college drinking buddies, as it happens — are free to roam and experiment sexually, but young women like Daphne and her sisters are taught nothing about intercourse, reproduction or physical pleasure, leaving them in the dark about the most intimate and important facets of their lives.
Antony frequently locks horns with his widowed mother Violet (Ruth Gemmell), who’s far more capable of serving as the Man of the House, but has no legal right to do so. Some doors down, in the Featherington household, we get an even starker example of how some men can barely take care of themselves, let alone their children.
The frothy pleasures of the earlier chapters quickly give way to exposing the true stakes of the marriage market: avoiding a lifetime of violence, penury or emotional neglect, while securing the kind of enviable match that could lend an afterglow to the remaining siblings. The inherent riskiness of marriage makes Daphne’s younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) understandably terrified of being shoved into the field before she’s ready — a fear from which she distracts herself by attempting to uncover Lady Whistledown’s identity.
Meanwhile, the reality of the contagiousness of scandal is explored in greater detail via the haughty Featheringtons, who are tasked with finding a husband for their country-mouse cousin, the beautiful Marina (Ruby Barker). Marina arrives in London with a secret that, if exposed, would further mar the chances of her cousin Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), a plump, bookish teen who knows that her figure and her smarts already put her in an unfavorable position.
Bridgerton is overpopulated: Its significant supporting characters also include gambling grande dame and Simon’s de facto mother Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), his boxer best friend (Martins Imhangbe), the Featherington matriarch (Polly Walker), even a Prussian prince (Freddie Stroma). The writers also detour into opera houses, queer- and threesome-friendly sex dens and servants’ quarters — where coddled Daphne and Antony realize they’re so clueless about actual housework they can’t even heat up a glass of milk on a sleepless night.
That overstuffedness eventually pulls focus from the central couple, who are ultimately asked to grapple with the genuinely moving question of whether love for one person can override hatred for another. But it’s also somewhat hard to ding a series for its ambitious world-building and obvious generosity of spirit. During marriage season, nearly everyone is trained to view each other as an advantage or a disadvantage. But Bridgerton clearly sees all of its characters as the individuals that they are.
Cast: Adjoa Andoh, Lorraine Ashbourne, Jonathan Bailey, Ruby Barker, Sabrina Bartlett, Joanna Bobin, Harriet Cains, Bessie Carter, Nicola Coughlan, Phoebe Dynevor, Ruth Gemmell, Florence Hunt, Claudia Jessie, Ben Miller, Martins Imhangbe, Luke Newton, Regé-Jean Page, Golda Rosheuvel, Ruby Stokes, Luke Thompson, Will Tilston, Polly Walker, Kathryn Drysdale, Jessica Madsen
Creator: Chris Van Dusen
Showrunner: Chris Van Dusen
Premieres Friday, Dec. 25, on Netflix
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