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Bridgerton is, in a word, hot. In more ways than one. Not only does it feature attractive young people heartily going at it with only the slightest nod toward societal constraints, but it’s also burning up the pop-culture conversation as more and more viewers discover it and critics share their opinions. The reasons for that are as diverse as the show’s much-hyped cast.
Superstar executive producer Shonda Rhymes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) and veteran Shondaland showrunner Chris Van Dusen have brought to life this juicy Regency romance based on a series of bestselling novels by Julia Quinn. Each of the books focuses on a different sibling among the Bridgerton clan, a wealthy and well-respected family among Britain’s elite high society, known as the “ton.” The first season centers on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), one of many eligible debutantes entering London’s marriage market (a seemingly endless series of balls and social events) in search of an advantageous match. Enter Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), an avowed bachelor forced to fend off the unwanted advances of ambitious mamas and their clingy daughters.
Together, Daphne and Simon enter into a pretend courtship, to spare him from societal pressure while establishing her prestige as a desirable bride. For their plan to work, they’ll have to convince everyone they’re falling madly in love (as you might expect, it becomes quite a chore), especially one Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), the anonymous author of a widely distributed gossip pamphlet. The mystery of her identity is one of the driving forces that keeps Bridgerton moving at a swift pace, and has become the subject of almost as much speculation off screen as it is on the show.
Even more discourse, though, has come from the novelty of seeing a diverse cast in a Regency romance. Race isn’t a factor in the books that inspired the series, but for the screen adaption the producers made the groundbreaking decision to cast actors who look like modern audiences. From the main love interest to Queen Charlotte (or, as I like to call her, Our Resplendent Lady of Magnificent Wigs), through the aristocracy on down to merchants and servants, society is far more colorful than we’re used to seeing in a period production like this. It doesn’t hurt that the actors are easy on the eyes and well suited to their roles.
Other elements are more conventional. The lush production design is certainly worthy of note. Every episode is a promenade of luscious gowns and dashing tailcoats through opulent mansions, elegant garden parties, and extravagant balls. So. Many. Balls. Yet there are ugly truths and injustices hiding beneath the gilded surface. The unequal moral code of the era, when a young man’s transgression could be overlooked but a girl could bring disgrace on her entire family merely by being spotted in the wrong place, is a key ingredient in the drama. And let’s not even talk about lack of knowledge when it comes to the biological facts of sex and pregnancy. They certainly didn’t.
So what if the show takes liberties with historical accuracy? History is beside the point (although, to be fair, there is evidence that British society back then was much more inclusive than we’ve been taught.) The story doesn’t rely on realism; it relies on sensationalism. In a sense, we’re all like Lady Whistledown and her devoted readers — rooting for love but living for scandal.
This sexy, modern, and diverse take on Regency romance is a delightful departure from the traditional. Yet it still has enough conventional elements to appeal to fans of classic Jane Austen.
Don’t be fooled by the Austenesque setting, this isn’t an innocent or demure love story (the TV-MA rating is no joke). Wait until after dark, then tune in with other fans of sultry, scandalous, gorgeous period drama. You’ll want someone to talk about it with afterwards.
Where to find it: Netflix