In her first series following her recent move to Netflix, Shonda Rhimes‘ Bridgerton Season 1 is a breathless escape into beauty and intrigue. From the very first episode, viewers are swept up in the rustle of skirts, the opulence of a regency costume piece, and the burn of stolen glances across crowded ballrooms. Bridgerton is sumptuous, sensual, salacious, and sure to be your new favorite obsession.
Bridgerton is created by Chris Van Dusen and stars Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page. The ‘ton’ is brought to life with an impressive (and incredibly good-looking) ensemble cast featuring Jonathan Bailey, Nicola Coughlan, Claudia Jessie, Ruby Barker, Adjoa Andoh, Golda Rosheuvel, and Julie Andrews as the voice of provocative columnist Lady Whistledown.
The social season has begun and debutantes must enter the quiet battlefield of the ballroom, in hopes of securing a match. Courtship is a ruthless competition and the slightest misstep in propriety can ruin any young woman and her family along with her. Daphne Bridgerton (Dynevor) is the eldest daughter and must safeguard the reputation of her powerful family. Her beauty makes her the favorite of the season and the object of any suitors’ desires, but there’s one hiccup — Daphne is determined to marry for love. Furthermore, her overly-protective older brother is scaring away any potential matches. Out of desperation, Daphne conspires with the handsome and wildly desirable Duke of Hastings. Their arrangement is simple: the Duke will see to it that suitors continue to see Daphne’s value, Daphne will serve as an obstacle to the pushy mothers seeking a duke for a son-in-law, and they will convince the entire community that they have fallen in love. What could go wrong?
The show is based on Julia Quinn’s wildly popular romance series and is focused particularly on her first novel in the series, The Duke & I. While Bridgerton does center primarily on Daphne and the Duke’s adventures, the series does stretch beyond the limitations of the book and offers viewers a complete picture and introduction to the many individuals (and desires) that inhabit ‘the ton.’ Intrigue and scandal abound!
Bridgerton strikes the careful and intoxicating balance of being a perfect offering for die-hard fans of costume dramas while avoiding the genre’s natural pitfalls. Polite parlor manners and lush costuming and period sets dance coyly with string covers of Top 40 hits. Bridgerton is not weighed down by the historical details and limitations of the era but lifts out the elements that lend themselves to fantasy. Everything is beautiful and hopelessly romantic, but sleek and accessible.
A huge part of Bridgerton‘s contemporary feel is the diversity of its cast. Period dramas have often, and rightfully, been criticized for lacking in this department and Bridgerton is evidence that a racially diverse cast can not only work but add to the beauty and appeal of a costume drama. More importantly, the cast of Bridgerton is competent and delightful. With such a large tapestry of story threads, there are many moments for humor, sorrow, romance, and honor and each part is perfectly cast and brilliantly performed. We may come to the series for the beauty of a gown and a ball, but viewers will stay with Bridgerton Season 1 out of ardent admiration and love for these characters.
However, with this praise comes a note of criticism. It is wonderful to see Black actors and actresses in these roles. It is wonderful to see Bridgerton address their presence and allow the diversity of the cast to create a much more fascinating world. All of that being said, more is needed. The few lines dedicated to discussing race in the context of the show are brief and thrown out to flop about before dying completely. No explanation for the presence of racial diversity is required but, since the show makes the choice to address it, it would be better for that discussion to be more fleshed out and intentional. At present, it felt like an afterthought.
As this is an adaptation of a historical romance, let’s talk about sex for a moment. Bridgerton is absolutely full of it and it’s fantastic. Bridgerton understands the fantasy and allure of what makes an addictive romance and the scenes stroke the senses and leaves you reaching for a glass of water and a small portable fan. This is a show for anyone that has broken the spine on a ripped-bodice romance before. It’s hot.
Beyond being a hugely… stirring… romance, Bridgerton is sexy with intellect and intention. Of course, there’s the obvious example of Daphne as a heroine that bucks the “marriage of convenience” traditions of her time but that’s just scratching the surface. Time and time again, Bridgerton Season 1 proves to be a story about female agency. While the world may belong to men, it is women that have learned how to operate in the shadows and redirect the world to their liking. A Queen may rule in place of her husband the king. A mother can change her daughter’s fortunes with a well-time luncheon. Women of all stations can form secret networks to exchange information and influence outcomes. An anonymous gossip columnist can make you or break you. It’s possibly even more exciting to view Bridgerton as an intimate world of women than it is to get swept in a romance, as hot as that romance might be.
Now let’s get back to sex, female pleasure focused sex in particular. Bridgerton does not shy away from the female climax, explorations of female masturbation, and a more than healthy helping of portrayals of oral sex (of the lady receiving variety). If that doesn’t get you hot under the collar, there’s no hope for you. Yes, interwoven with its contemporary sensibilities and sneaky feminism is a comfort with portraying female pleasure that is widely missing from pop culture (certainly missing from period pieces).
Bridgerton promenades down the same tired paths as many romances from the period. Regé-Jean Page does his best impression of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy (if Mr. Darcy went down like an anchor…) and the story of a relentlessly attractive couple pretending to be in love, while also swearing to never actually fall in love, is so predictable that it would be impossible for me to spoil the romance. Y’all know what this is.
Bridgerton Season 1 is available for streaming on Netflix. Bridgerton Season 2 is also available.
True, Bridgerton takes the road well-traveled by other stories in its genre. Yet its tone is so refreshing and its characters so arresting that all is forgiven. Rather than being tedious, these tropes are able to be playful in their familiarity. It’s just a delight to watch. The show is habit-forming and heady. Prepare to swoon.