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Netflix's Bridgerton is precisely the show our particular moment requires, managing to feel both comfortably familiar and completely brand new

  • The Shonda Rhimes-produced Netflix period drama from creator Chris Van Dusen based on Julia Quinn's Bridgerton book series is "an effervescent, romantic romp that centers the female-gaze and spirit in a world that too often views women as little more than object," says Lacy Baugher. She adds: "True, the story is not exactly a serious drama—at least, not in the way we normally like to think of historical period pieces. This isn’t The Crown. It isn’t even Downton Abbey. And viewers shouldn’t expect it to be. But that’s okay, because Bridgerton is perhaps all the better for understanding exactly what kind of show it is, and leaning into its identity with its whole heart. As we stare down the barrel of a dark COVID-19 winter, avoiding family holiday gatherings and waiting for our turn to get the vaccine that might allow us something like normal lives again, this colorful confection of longing glances, gorgeously anachronistic gowns, and social politics feels like a beautiful gift. It is pure, swoony joy from start to finish, a delightful bit of escapism into a world that is rich and fully realized, populated by feisty heroines and dashing dukes, as well as their cinnamon roll siblings and hot mess friends... Bridgerton is not the best show I’ve seen this year, technically speaking, but it is perhaps my favorite. Only The Queen’s Gambit has come close to matching the feeling of warm, thorough satisfaction one experiences while watching it, and if this show doesn’t bring an entire army of new devotees to the world of period dramas and historical romances, something is very, very wrong. (Just put the BBC’s North and South in your streaming queues now, folks.)"

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    • Bridgerton's race-blind approach is its most intriguing aspect: "The curveball here — at least the one that will probably raise the most eyebrows — is how the show treats race, mainly by doing away with it," says Hank Stuever. "In a firmly White genre set in a resolutely White milieu, the opening episode of Bridgerton is forthrightly and confidently race-blind, with actors of color in standout roles, including the male romantic lead (Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, the dashing young Duke of Hastings); a shrewdly observant doyenne (Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury); a young debutante in dire circumstances (Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson); and even Queen Charlotte herself (Golda Rosheuvel). This will only startle the most recalcitrant of purists, who will already be peevish about Bridgerton’s ahistorically casual approach. For everyone else, it should be nothing more than a pleasant and easily received upgrade, on par with progress and laced with the satisfaction of knowing that diversity lifts both the industry and the viewers. The only time it becomes obvious is the show’s own misstep, with a stray moment of dialogue that comes about halfway through Bridgerton’s arc: A Black character stops to explain, grandly, how and why this society came to be integrated. (Answer: because the queen is a person of color.) Not only does it not make much sense, but it seems like an unnecessary wrench thrown into a completely sensible and revisionary romp: People of color are here because they should have been here all along. Isn’t that reason enough?"
    • Bridgerton mixes age-old tropes and distinct Shondaland sensibilities to make a formidable love match: "The eight episodes of this addictive first season fly by in a flurry of stolen glances and whispered rumors, wounded pride and star-crossed love, lavish balls and string quartet renditions of songs that, upon closer inspection, are definitely Ariana Grande," says Caroline Framke. "As per the demands of its genre, Bridgerton is mostly concerned with the romantic entanglements of society’s upper crust. It does, however, throw in an extra mystery in the form of 'Lady Whistledown,' an anonymous gossip columnist — voiced by none other than Julie Andrews — whose juicy updates keep everyone on their toes. (I can’t say anything more about Lady Whistledown’s identity other than it does come to light by season’s end, and that I greatly enjoyed the reveal even though I saw it coming from a mile away.)"
    • Bridgerton is a beguiling example of what can happen when romance is allowed to belong to characters who aren’t all straight and white: It's also "a fanfare-and-confetti reminder of what the genre can be at its best. It made me want to whisper obscene gossip, pop Champagne, and run giddily through a hedge maze," says Kathryn VanArendonk, adding: "The series tells that story with sparkling momentum, pausing at all the moments when one character or another wrestles with unexpected feelings, then prodding them forward before anyone can wallow for too long. Like the best romances, it marches its protagonists through agony (loathing, hidden lust, buried secrets) with regular intervals of relief, only to reinstate them in some even more unbearable state of tension."
    • Bridgerton is beautiful, but mind-numbingly dull: "The trailer promised scandal, intrigue, and forbidden dalliances among a small faction of people to whom appearances mean everything — a world where even the slightest whiff of impropriety could mean social ruin, especially for women," says Michael Blackmon. "The trailer also highlighted several Black characters who would be prominently featured throughout the series, an exciting update to the usually overwhelmingly white Regency-era London. It physically pains me, as a homosexual, to say that not even the inclusion of Julie Andrews as the narrator, Lady Whistledown, an anonymous writer who produces a pamphlet detailing the sordid lives of these upper-crust folks, was enough to save the show. Alas. I was bored to tears for the majority of each of the eight hourlong episodes, which, quite frankly, could’ve been a smooth six — maybe even five! The one thing I crave more than anything in the midst of the pandemic is an escape from the confining walls of my apartment. And while Bridgerton held so much promise, with A-list talent, a legendary producer, interesting source material, and sumptuous sets, the end product turned out to be mind-numbingly dull."
    • Bridgerton is addictive and entertaining, but ultimately feels hollow: "Bridgerton is very consumed with presenting us with a period romance that it leaves most relationships and themes rather hollow," says Mae Abdulbaki. "The anachronisms are amusing, however, especially when the orchestra plays violin arrangements of modern songs, including one by Taylor Swift. There is a lot of drama for the sake of drama and it occasionally feels rushed and over-the-top because that is all it’s focused on. As an entertaining (albeit shallow) series, it’s exciting to watch, if only to see the romance unfold and to find out what happens. But, Bridgerton exists in a bubble, a fantasy that doesn’t take into account anything beyond the dreamy aspects. There is no analysis of socialites, race is mentioned once in a 'love conquers all' explanation, and there are sprinkles of female friendship, but none of them are a point of particular focus. Bridgerton even tries to emulate Elizabeth and Jane’s differences from Pride and Prejudice with Daphne and her sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who wants to go to university and constantly frowns upon marriage, but it feels rather empty without the same closeness."
    • For those who haven't read Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, the show can be confusing: "For those who haven’t been embedded in the Bridgerton world already — and even if you are — there are times the narrative isn’t clear," says Ann Donahue. "With eight Bridgerton siblings and assorted frenemies and enemies that intertwine with the family, there are so many characters and so much spectacle that who is doing what, where, and why, can become a muddle. One of the Bridgerton sisters is shipped off to the countryside — in the literal sense, not in the trying-to-hide-a-pregnancy sense —  for almost the entire duration of the series. I forgot about her. I have read an entire book about her, and I still forgot about her. There are about a dozen additional actors besides Dynevor and Page that deserve shoutouts for their engaging, deft performances; to do so would cause this review to reach doctoral thesis length, and don’t tempt me. Everyone is good — but there are just so many of them."
    • Bridgerton titillates, but also has enough on its mind to satiate: "Bridgerton, with a scandalous scope and lustful labors, is like Downton Abbey‘s downtown cousin," says Brandon Katz. "The Crown on spring break. It has all the performative trappings of a sumptuous royal drama mixed with many of Rhimes’ most enjoyable indulgences. Who knew a posh period piece could be so, ahem, impassioned?" He adds: "Even though Bridgerton clearly delights in its old-fashioned setting, it still skewers the values of the era. Its upstairs-downstairs dynamic juxtaposes high society with everyone else. You need no reminder their two worlds are as different as toast and bread. The opportunities, or lack thereof, force our characters into difficult, sometimes egregious, but often understandable choices."
    • Bridgerton's freshest elements pertain to its observations of how patriarchal traditions have real and devastating effects on its female characters: "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," says Inkoo Kang. "...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.) 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."
    • Bridgerton does not demonstrate a clear grasp of the bigger story: "There is a persistent sense throughout the first hours of Bridgerton that none of it really matters much," says Robert Levin. "The show is so persistently lightweight that the consequences of the hubbub over Daphne Bridgerton's future do not seem to be of particular significance. Because they are so pretty, and dressed in such immaculate finery, the characters seem to be posing in tableaux rather than actually occupying the world they inhabit. The more dramatic moments, including those that allude to darker themes about classist mistreatment and patriarchal abuses, don't land. They seem to have been tacked on in order to provide a veneer of seriousness over what is essentially an extended steamy romance novel."
    • Bridgerton is best seen as a Shonda Rhimes escapist delight: "This part of the Rhimes aesthetic has survived unfiltered and intact: From Grey’s to Scandal to How to Get Away with Murder, Shondaland has long known how to take the guilt out of one’s guilty pleasures," says Alison Herman. "It’s something softer and more intentional than camp, which means it’s also easier to package and repeat."
    • Warning: Bridgerton is a lot to take in at first: "The Regency-era romance — based on the novels by Julia Quinn and exec produced by Shonda Rhimes — is character-stuffed and almost overwhelmingly opulent, all candy-colored ballgowns and sprawling ancestral estates," says Kristen Baldwin. "The inundation of visual and narrative information foisted upon viewers in the premiere feels a bit like a corset being tightened around your brain: Several EW staffers, myself included, reported turning off the first episode part-way through. And yet — twist! — we all returned to the series later and binge-watched to the end. Bridgerton, it seems, is a wonderful diversion for those who love Pride & Prejudice but wish it had more stairway sex."
    • Bridgerton is a welcome flip of the script from TV’s traditional period romances: "The uptight decorum and prudish manners of the era are re-imagined through a modern lens, à la Oscar winner The Favourite or acclaimed TV series like The Great and Dickinson, and Bridgerton’s mix of values and eras is a joy to watch," says Lorraine Ali. "The series naturally moves from stolen kisses in the garden one moment to torrid sex romps in the parlor the next. Bashful glances at the ball live in the same world with orgies at a clandestine gentlemen’s club. Historians and Jane Austen purists may take offense, but this well crafted, escapist drama — where orchestras play covers of Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish hits — is not meant for them." Ali adds: "Bridgerton may delight most of all in upending the historical realities of women’s repression with a detailed narrative of Daphne’s sexual awakening. Much of its lively, fast-paced story is filtered through her gaze, with longing, conquest, passion, sex, love and loss all hers to explore, enjoy and agonize over. It’s a welcome flip of the script from TV’s traditional period romances."
    • Bridgerton is among the most stressful TV experiences you'll experience: "The sets are lavish, the costumes are gorgeous, the dialogue is pithy and sharp," says Emma Stefansky. "It also had me so stressed out I had to walk around my house for 15 minutes every time I finished an episode. In its tensest moments, of which there are at least three every episode, Bridgerton is Pride and Prejudice meets the third act of Uncut Gems, characters pinballing around English high society, playing emotion games and exposing secrets and generally making each other completely miserable as only bored people in possession of extreme wealth can. It's ridiculous—and completely addicting. It's also groundbreaking in two ways. This is one of the most racially diverse casts I've ever seen in this kind of setting, immediately putting to bed the notion that 'historical accuracy' is inherently exclusive. It's also a very, very hot show that, contrary to the era it's representing, has a distinctly modern sensibility about sexuality."
    • Bridgerton starts off as a great show, but it falters in the second half of the season: "For the first half of the season, I loved it enough to marry it," says Judy Berman. "Then… well, hate is a strong word. Let’s say I was seized by the apprehension that Bridgerton wasn’t quite the same show I’d so hastily committed to." Berman adds: "The trouble comes midway through, when conflicts within several characters’ relationships begin cycling into redundancy and four episodes’ worth of chaste sexual tension give way to a fleshy, soft-focus aesthetic that perhaps owes more to Skinemax than it does to, say, the far more enticing Outlander. (Don’t let the Dec. 25 release date fool you: a family binge session might get pretty awkward.)
    • Bridgerton is more fun, perceptive and affecting than the shorthand "Jane Austen meets Gossip Girl" description makes it sound: The show has a feminist sensibility that apparently extends to "more than a few sequences featuring a shirtless (and sometimes pants-less) Page, showing off his studly physique," says Kristi Turnquist. "It’s unusual, and a bit refreshing, to see the male lead’s physical attributes so glorified, even though the scenes of Simon boxing with his equally hunky friend, Will Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe), ultimately get to be a bit much. What also sets Bridgerton apart is its actors. Enjoyable as the many versions of Austen’s books may be, their casts have been so white that when Sanditon, an adaptation of Austen’s final, unfinished novel, featured Austen’s first Black character, Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke), it felt earthshaking. Bridgerton has the benefit both of a sophisticated approach to race, and a fabulously gifted cast."
    • Race is relevant in Bridgerton, but it's not delved into deeply: "Bridgerton offers an aspirational fantasy but is not super interested in the fine print, as opposed to (Ryan) Murphy’s Hollywood (in which the 1940s movie industry turns racially enlightened) or Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen (in which reparations lead to apocalyptic backlash). Like many of Rhimes’s past shows, it wears its inclusiveness consciously but lightly," says James Poniewozik. "Here, race is relevant, but not the sum of any character’s story. But a flashback in which Simon’s domineering father (Richard Pepple) tells him the family must 'remain extraordinary' to keep its position recalls Scandal, in which Olivia Pope’s father taught her that Black people like themselves 'have to be twice as good' as white people 'to get half of what they have.' Bridgerton also resembles the recent Dickinson and The Great in infusing stories of women from past centuries with a 21st-century attitude and attention to female agency."
    • Bridgerton costume designer Ellen Mirojnick wanted to create "the opposite of Jane Austen": "Our intention was to make quite the opposite of Jane Austen, as the costumes needed to have an aspirational layer," says the Emmy-winning designer, who oversaw a staggering 7,000-plus items designed from scratch, so many that they warranted their own costume house.
    • Shonda Rhimes doesn't understand why more non-Jane Austen romance novels aren't adapted for the TV screen: “It’s fascinating to me that no one has really done it before,” says Rhimes, who isn't an avid romance reader but who devoured Julia Quinn's Bridgerton book series. “Romance novels really lend themselves to the TV genre. They’re visual; they’re well paced; they have great plots.”
    • Executive producer Besty Beers admits even she was initially caught up in the prestige gap between Austen and other romance novels: “I didn’t take what the books were as seriously as I could’ve initially,” she says. “But there should be no pejorative association with romance novels. Nobody sneezes at suspense, at action, at true crime. These are just good stories about relationships, about emotional politics, about how you juggle duty, love, and lust.”
    • Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen says "Shonda and I speak the same language. We can basically finish each other’s sentences": "Bridgerton reflects all the shows I’ve worked on with her — smart and spirited, often tortured characters finding out who they are,” says Van Dusen, a veteran of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. Van Dusen adds of Bridgerton's feminist focus: “The subject of sexuality and sexual pleasure was taboo at the time, and these young women absolutely needed sex education. Young ladies like Daphne were kept in the dark and knew very little of love and nothing at all of sex. Absolutely nothing. It says so much about attitudes towards women then."

    TOPICS: Bridgerton, Netflix, Chris Van Dusen, Ellen Mirojnick, Julia Quinn, Shonda Rhimes, Costume Design, Shondaland




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