It's been more than three years since TV producer extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes signed her landmark $100 million deal to create TV shows for Netflix. At the time it was a massive coup for a streaming service to poach one of network television's last remaining superstar producers. The realm of possibilities for what Rhimes could create at Netflix felt staggering. Would she give streaming TV its own Grey's Anatomy? (Particularly when the one thing that streaming television has seemed unable or even resistant to doing is to creating long-running soapy dramas?)
But the subsequent years have been remarkably silent when it comes to Shondaland and Netflix. Soon after Rhimes's deal came the blockbuster Ryan Murphy Netflix deal, worth $300 million, and which has already spawned three new series and two feature films (with more of both on the way). Meanwhile, it's been three and a half years since Rhimes signed with Netflix, and we're only now getting the first Shondaland Netflix programs. With the much-anticipated Inventing Anna still on the horizon, the first Shondaland projects to hit the streamer have been Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, a documentary about Debbie Allen's dance academy (read my review), and the costume drama Bridgerton, premiering on Christmas Day.
While Inventing Anna will be created and written by Rhimes herself, Bridgerton is the brainchild of creator Chris Van Dusen, adapted from Julia Quinn's series of romance novels, with Rhimes and frequent collaborator Betsy Beers serving as executive producers. And while the aggressive energy and darkly complex protagonists of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder aren't present, Bridgerton is an incredibly addictive costume drama that feels modern in its sensibility without explicitly existing out of its own time and space. This is Jane Austen-era English society, with all the manners and customs and marriage politics one would expect, but with a Gossip Girl sheen and a touch of historical fiction that make for an altogether fervent ten-episode binge.
Julia Quinn's series of Bridgerton novels offer a wide, rich canvas for a TV series, enough to make one wonder why more romance-novel series aren't adapted for television. This one focuses on the titular Bridgerton family, led by the widowed Lady Violet (a sharp and empathetic Ruth Gemmell), who's raising eight children in Regency-era London. Her eldest three — stubborn and romantically obtuse Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), capable optimist Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), and kind goofball Colin (Luke Newton) — are all of marrying age, and as you might expect from the genre, much of Season 1 revolves around matchmaking, marriage plots, and romantic subterfuge of that sort. Middle Bridgerton child Eloise (Claudia Jessie) isn't quite at the debutante level yet, but she's already dead-set against a life that places her marriagability at the core of her worth, putting her in opposition to her siblings and friends.
It's Daphne, though, who becomes the central focus of the season, and in particular her search for a suitor, a pursuit that ends up interesting everyone from the Queen to the all-knowing and anonymous scandal-sheet writer known only as "Lady Whistledown" (deep Gossip Girl vibes on that, especially as Lady Whistledown takes on narrating duties for the series, voiced by the incomparable Julie Andrews). Daphne's path quickly crosses with Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a school friend of Anthony's who is described as a "rake" more times in the show's first four episodes than you'd imagine possible. Daphne and Simon's first meeting is bristly, which is how we know they're destined for each other, and they soon hatch a scheme where he'll pretend to court her in order to spike her marriage quotient and keep the local whatever-you-call-yentas-in-Regency-England off his back. It's not hard to predict what comes next for Simon and Daphne, although it's complicated by his backstory and a vow he's made never to have an heir. (This ends up making the ins and outs — as it were — of nonprocreative heterosexual sex very much a plot point as the season goes on.)
Like any good soap, the Bridgertons' story is buttressed by a handful of other families. There's the scheming, financially precarious Featherington family, with three marriage-aged daughters of their own, led by Polly Walker as Lady Portia Featherington. And if Bridgerton was already giving you Gossip Girl and The O.C. vibes, casting Julie Cooper's doppelganger, putting her in a red wig, and having her scheme over her daughters' romantic prospects definitely puts it over the top. The Featheringtons have also taken in Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), a young woman with secrets, as is required from a show of this kind.
It should be noted here that, unlike your average Jane Austen-era adaptation, Bridgerton has cast a number of actors and actresses of color throughout the series. Simon is played by Zimbabwe-born Regé-Jean Page, and his aunt, the deliciously entertaining Lady Danbury is played by Adjoa Andoh. Other characters, from Marina, to dressmaker Madame Delacroix, to working-class boxer Will Mondrich, are also played by actors of color. At first, this seemed like simple colorblind casting, a welcome change on its own and one in keeping with Rhimes's historical casting practices, but as the season goes on, we discover there's some historical fiction afoot, beginning with Queen Charlotte (the only historical character in the story, one who's been played through the years by the likes of Helen Mirren) played by biracial actress Golda Rosheuvel. This is itself a nod to historical debate over Queen Charlotte's possible African ancestry. This, in the world of Bridgerton, opened up English aristocracy to families of color in a revolutionary way that never becomes central to the plot of the show but nevertheless gives the series a further air of romantic fantasy.
This also plays into the show's blend of classic and modernist sensibilities, something that's present in everything from the acting style, to the dialogue, to the plot's many twist and turns. The show is careful to never tip the balance too far towards the modern; this isn't Rock N Roll Jane Austen. But it's also decidedly un-stuffy, with winks to modern soaps and teen dramas (XOXO, Lady Whistledown) and a soundtrack where the string arrangements all sound plausibly like pop-song arrangements.
While acknowledging its successes as an ensemble drama, one which cleverly introduces more and more angles to its many characters (I've yet to mention overlooked Featherington daughter Phoebe or possibly bisexual Bridgerton son Benedict) Bridgerton is at its heart a romance, and Daphne and Simon's palpable chemistry carries that one off quite well. If the romance-novel roots of the show weren't already an indication that there is sex and plenty of it in this show, rest assured.
All in all, Bridgerton is a lot of fun, and like any good soap, it draws you in bit by bit until you're completely hooked. At the very least, the search for who's behind Lady Whistledown had me locked and loaded.
Bridgerton drops on Netflix December 25th.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: Bridgerton, Netflix, Adjoa Andoh, Betsy Beers, Chris Van Dusen, Claudia Jessie, Golda Rosheuvel, Jonathan Bailey, Julia Quinn, Julie Andrews, Luke Newton, Phoebe Dynevor, Polly Walker, Regé-Jean Page, Ruby Barker, Ruth Gemmell, Shonda Rhimes