Bridgerton is a horny historical romance for the ages: Review
How to put this simply? Bridgerton is a lot. 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. 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.
The saga begins at the start of the London social season in 1813, as Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and Lady Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) are among the dozens of proud mothers presenting their marriageable daughters to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) for approval. Among the young desirables making her debut is Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), an exquisite and suitably naïve beauty who quite literally bumps into the most eligible bachelor in town, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) at a ball. They quarrel — "If you desired an introduction, madam, I do believe accosting me to be the least civilized of ways" — so naturally, they are meant for each other.
Soon Violet is conspiring with the sly Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh, oozing sophisticated swagger) to match Daphne and the Duke in marriage. Much of Bridgerton's early episodes revolve around other people attempting to determine Daphne's fate: Her overprotective older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) insists on vetting all of Daphne's suitors, even as he swans around London having steamy out-of-wedlock sex. And then there's Lady Whistledown (voiced with regal perfection by Dame Julie Andrews), a mysterious society columnist whose musings about the social season's goings-on have the power to destroy even the most promising of matches.
We'd need a bulletin board and some red string to plot the rest of Bridgerton's many characters and storylines — just know that there are balls and operas and drawing room intrigue, sweaty shirtless boxing matches and bitter family rivalries, unrequited love and a comely distant cousin (Ruby Barker) with a secret, and passionate sexual awakenings. Being a woman of marrying age in the Regency era did not, of course, require any knowledge of sex or human reproduction. Be it indoors or outdoors, bedroom, library or grand staircase, backstage at the opera house or beneath the canvas-covered bleachers at a boxing match, nowhere is safe from the boisterous lovemaking of Bridgerton's randy cast of characters.
In the less libidinous moments, creator Chris Van Dusen — who learned the art of speed-plotting during his tour of Shondaland duty (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal) — keeps the many narratives spinning faster than dancers on a ballroom floor. Page, who played a charming egomaniac on For the People (may it rest in peace), is equally appealing as the Duke, a charming and arrogant rake on the verge of reform. The expansive ensemble has several other excellent players: Claudia Jessie is delightful as Daphne's iconoclastic younger sister Eloise, who idolizes Lady Whistledown and pledges to uncover her identity. Walker brings a subtle pathos to Lady Featherington, who masks panic about her family's future with battle-ax bluster. And as Queen Charlotte, West End mainstay Rosheuvel commands the screen with sly and haughty confidence. (Give us a Charlotte and the Mad King George spin-off, plz!)
Bridgerton (premiering Dec. 25) is Shonda Rhimes' first show for Netflix, after a signing a multimillion-dollar deal with the streamer in 2017. Shot on location in London and Bath, the period drama looks every bit as expensive as it no doubt was to produce. More notably, though, are the ways it doesn't look like every other period drama ever produced: In Bridgerton's version of Regency London, citizens of all ethnicities can secure a spot in high society. The Queen herself is Black, balls are packed with well-to-do attendees of all colors, and the prospect of an interracial romance between Daphne and the Duke causes nary a fan to flutter. The topic of race arises exactly once, in a fleeting but shrewd exchange about how this colorblind utopia came to be. For all of the misery we endured in 2020, at least it is the year that Shondaland successfully dragged the period romance into the modern age. Grade: B+