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In this modern interpretation of Regency romance, the members of the noble Bridgerton family navigate the conventions of their position as part of London’s elite society. Each season focuses on the love story of one of the Bridgerton siblings during the ups and downs of the annual marriage season, with minor stories of their friends and neighbors sprinkled in for good measure. All of the drama is closely observed and reported on by an anonymous gossip columnist calling herself Lady Whistledown, who can ruin reputations with the stroke of her pen.
The series comes from superstar executive producer Shonda Rhymes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) and veteran Shondaland showrunner Chris Van Dusen. Regé-Jean Page (who only appears is Season 1) is now a much familiar name thanks to this series, as is Phoebe Dynevor who shares the central love story with him in the first season. Other notable cast members include Adjoa Andoh (Doctor Who) as the formidable Lady Danbury, Polly Walker (Rome) as the conniving Lady Featherington, Nicola Coughlan (Derry Girls) as her daughter Penelope, Ruth Gemmell (Home Fires) as Viscountess Bridgerton, the matriarch of the titular family, and Jonathan Bailey as eldest son Anthony. Season 2 also introduces Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran as the newly arrived Sharma sisters Kate and Edwina.
Bridgerton is, in a word, hot. In more ways than one. While the second season is not as steamy as the first, both feature attractive young people oozing sexual tension. It also tends to burn 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.
Rhymes and Van Dusen have brought to life this juicy Regency romance based on a series of bestselling novels by Julia Quinn. The first season centers on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), one of many eligible debutantes entering London’s marriage mart (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.
In the second season, eldest Bridgerton son Anthony sets out to find a wife for himself and only a “diamond of the first water,” season’s most eligible lady, will do. As the titular head of the family since his father’s death when he was 18, the Viscount is only interested in making a match for status and eventually producing an heir. Love is the farthest thing from his mind. Until he meets Kate Sharma, who just happens to be the older sister of Edwina, the diamond he’s supposed to be after. As Anthony courts the sweet and proper Edwina, he finds himself drawn to Kate, who is more suited to him in almost every way. It’s a love triangle destined to end in scandal, but also potentially in a happy ever after for two people who aren’t accustomed to putting their own needs before their family.
By the second season the novelty of seeing a diverse cast in a Regency romance has somewhat worn off, but it’s worth noting that the Sharma sisters were originally the Sheffield sisters in the book. Changing their origins to India and casting Ashley and Chandran was an inspired choice, and the second season is all the better for it. As she was in the first season, Queen Charlotte (also known as Her Resplendent Highness and Mistress of Magnificent Wigs) continues to be a delight. It’s great to see a world that’s far more colorful than we’re used to seeing in a period production like this, from the aristocracy down to the servants. 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. 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.
So what if the show takes liberties with historical accuracy? History is beside the point. And that attitude is what makes room for the fun little touches, like string quartet versions of pop songs. 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.
A second season has been confirmed, but alas it will reportedly not include Page as the Duke of Hastings, whose story comes to a conclusion at the end of this one.