By Dana Feeney
“Bridgerton,” a dramatic and sexually charged period piece, is the first show of Shonda Rhimes‘ highly anticipated slate of content from her $150 million deal with Netflix. The showrunner Chris Van Dusen‘s adaptation of Julia Quinn’s “Bridgerton” novels takes classic period piece tropes and turns them on their head. The show maintains the formality of 1800s Regency age England with courtship, elegant, bejeweled costuming, and a heavy emphasis on the value of a young woman’s modesty while contrasting it with sexual tension so thick one could cut it with a knife. The eight-episode series premiered on Netflix on December 25, 2020, and has remained in the Top 10 in the United States, currently at number two.
The first season focuses on the love story of Daphne Bridgerton, played by Phoebe Dynevor, and Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page. The characters spend their season enduring taunts from the anonymous Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julie Andrews, who reports the scathingly hot tea on anyone who slips up. Due to her brother’s actions, her competition, and Lady Whitstledown’s rumor mill, Daphne finds herself alone and without any viable options for an amicable marriage. These circumstances lead to the juiciest part of the story– Daphne and the Duke. The pair conspire to fake courtship and trick Lady Whistledown into reporting their love so Daphne can find a husband and the Duke can avoid all of the mothers trying to arrange his marriage with their daughters. What starts as a mutually advantageous deal for both quickly grows into a torrid love affair.
Unlike most period pieces, the producers chose to honor talent and diversity over historical accuracy. The series portrays many people of color in high places of authority, as well as mixed into the Royal Court and as tradespeople, despite the white-washed reality of 1800s British royalty. Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel, was of mixed descent, the daughter of an African woman and Alphonso III of Portugal. In this story, her union with King George III leads to the inclusion of other races in proper London society. Other notable characters of color are the Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh, a widowed woman of high social status, the Duke of Hastings, one of the most eligible bachelors despite being unwilling to marry, and Marina Thompson, played by Ruby Barker, who’s beauty rivals that of the main character.
Shonda Rhimes has become one of the most successful showrunners in the game and uses this position to celebrate diversity and interracial relationships on television. Her older content approaches race in a far more color-blind fashion, unlike her more recent work with both ABC and Netflix. “Bridgerton” comes with the recognition that the characters’ social standings come with their racial identities, instead of creating a theoretically color-blind world.
Shondaland, as a production company, has a deep portfolio when it comes to diversity and inclusion. More specifically, they highlight black women across all of their content; including Miranda Bailey, Maggie Pierce, and Catherine Fox in “Grey’s Anatomy,” Annalise Keating, and Michaela Pratt in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Victoria Hughes in “Station 19,” and Olivia Pope in “Scandal.” “Bridgerton” is no different as three black women are prominent characters: The Queen, Lady Danbury, and Marina Thompson.
At first, their love story seems predictable, but in true Shonda Rhimes fashion, every obstacle that could stand in the way of a character’s happiness absolutely will. As with the other shows she has helmed, Shonda Rhimes pulls every heartstring she can find while giving the audience just enough of what they want to keep them on the edge of their seats. Throughout the series, Lady Danbury carefully plays matchmaker to help bring Simon and Daphne together again and again throughout the ups and downs of their relationship.
Simon also receives counsel from his close friend Will Mondrich, a black boxer, played by Martins Imhangbe, and his wife Alice Mondrich, played by Emma Naomi. As a couple, they are the antithesis of the Duke because they are poor and lack class status but are rich in love and family. In the eight episodes, Van Dusen and Rhimes create three-dimensional characters whose conflicts span complex issues such as love versus duty, race, class, sexuality, and childhood trauma. At times the flashbacks used to force character development feel rushed, but overall, it does create a deeper understanding of the characters’ inner worlds.
“Bridgerton” dives wholeheartedly into the social, emotional, and sexual lives of its characters. Any viewer familiar with other Shondaland shows knows they do not shy away from passionate scenes or sensitive topics, but all of their prior content was limited by network television decency standards. The genre tends to be chaste and formal, but this series allows its characters drugs, alcohol, passionate sex, explosive arguments, and an attempted rape scene. Instead of maintaining eloquent composure shown in shows like “The Crown” (another Netflix Original), the flirtation and frustration between characters are all too familiar to real life as not even the Queen is above gossip, manipulation, and meddling.
The soundtrack and editing lend heavily to the tension development in scenes that will make your heart ache throughout the series. The soundtrack is another well done modern inclusion that defies the period piece genre with instrumental versions of songs by Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and more. The eloquent juxtaposition of the classic string instruments and modern pop songs creates a familiarity that draws the viewer deeper into the world.The ballroom scene scored with a Vitamin String Quartet cover of Shawn Mendes’ song “In My Blood” hits every musical and emotional beat as the camera cuts closer and closer, the background blurs, and the music swells. Expertly, tension builds with inside jokes, the brush of hands, and the change of attention from the world around to only seeing each other.
For anyone seeking binge-worthy entertainment during these quarantine days, “Bridgerton” is on Netflix here, and its soundtrack is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and iTunes, find it here. The next season is not yet confirmed by Netflix, but it is rumored to be in development according to What’s On Netflix. Shondaland’s next project with Netflix is a documentary drama series called “Inventing Anna,” which is set to release early 2021.