Prepare to swoon over Netflix’s new Regency romance, filled to the brim with dashing rogues, charming innocents, gorgeous costumes, and scandals galore.
“Bridgerton” follows a well-tread story, where the naive virgin and the brooding bad boy pretend to be in love in order to achieve their individual goals, only for genuine interest and affection to grow from the ruse. However, with likable characters, gorgeous production design, and a mysterious writer documenting the characters’ every move in deliciously scandalous fashion, the clichéd plot lines become part of the fun.
The show has faced well-deserved comparisons to the teen drama “Gossip Girl,” as much of the show’s drama arises from a mysterious gossip columnist going by Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), whose regular pamphlet details the various romances, triumphs, falls, and missteps of the central characters. While it is a shame to have the incomparable Andrews in a series and resign her exclusively to a narrator with no on-screen presence, her proper yet snarky tone elevates the scandal-mongering to high art.
Protagonists Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon Basset, duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), are both born out of classic tropes, but the series explores what forged the pair into the archetypical respective ingenue and rake who begin the series. Daphne is an incredibly sheltered romantic, whose lack of experience in the world leads to both charming plot contrivances and serious drama.
Dynevor manages to avoid making Daphne either cloying or outright dumb, but a product of her environment and upbringing, for both better and worse. Simon is handsome and charismatic, with a predictably tragic backstory to render him mysterious, but Page imbues the character with a needed depth and complexity, entrancing the audience with the same allure that captures the interest of nearly every woman on the show.
The pair have electric chemistry, which can turn the most innocuous acts of removing a glove, walking together, grazing hands, or dancing into deeply sexually charged moments, fit to rival the very explicit love scenes. Much of the drama of their love story comes from illogically poor communication, but their misunderstandings are built into the characters’ disparate world-views and experiences.
The whole ensemble of the supporting cast is excellent, inhabiting specific and engaging characters that create a rich, humorous tapestry of London society. Lady Danbury, played to perfection by Adjoa Andoh, is the show’s voice of reason, and a major source of both humor and heart with well-timed one-liners and heartfelt advice.
Jonathan Bailey is especially notable as Anthony, the protective eldest child of the Bridgerton household. Anthony is a complicated man, torn between his duty towards his family, his love of a woman he could never marry, his friendship with Simon, and a sense of responsibility for his younger siblings. Anthony could have easily devolved into a joke, a villain, or a victim of circumstance, but Bailey finds a way to meld each reading into a far more well-rounded person.
The show does a spectacular job at balancing the romanticized aspects of balls and gallantry with the darker realities of the transactional nature of marriage in Regency England. Everyone is openly aware that women’s futures depend solely on their abilities to find a wealthy husband from a good family.
Characters regularly refer to the marriage market as such, fully acknowledging all the phrase entails. Young women treat the process of finding a spouse like applying for a job; the girls’ parents and suitors behave like commodity traders. It’s refreshing to watch a period film to fully engage in the harsher side, rather than merely foisting a compromising marriage onto the protagonist’s less-exciting friend.
Daphne’s desire to marry for love is treated as a charming dream, one that is only a remote possibility due to her beauty and social standing, and will clearly not be the case for every woman. Where most films and shows struggle to create meaningful stakes for their romantic storylines, “Bridgerton’s” clarity of circumstance emphasizes the consequences.
In contrast to the presentation of courtship, the appearance of “Bridgerton” is charmingly idealized, with stunning costumes by Ellen Mirojnick and production design by Will Hughes-Jones. The clothes were all created for the series, with the team creating 7,500 original costumes that capture the era and the essence of the characters.
Daphne’s elegant blue and white gowns, Simon’s distinctive vests and jackets, and the Fetheringtons’ gaudy, colorful dresses stand out as especially notable, but each ball is filled with incredible original creations. The sets are likewise exquisite. Each ballroom, drawing room, and garden is filled with incredible detail, enriching the world while also looking beautiful.
Some period films find era-appropriate music to score their scenes, while others use contemporary music to create atmosphere. “Bridgerton” split the difference, with much of the score consisting of instrumental covers of very recognizable pop music, including Ariana Grande’s “thank u next” and Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You.”
The arrangements are quite lovely, but remarkably distracting, existing between the past and present in an awkward manner that fails to transcend time, instead calling attention to the differences between the eras, especially when the sporadic Regency ballad or 21st-century pop song graces the soundtrack.
The show also relied a little too heavily on very explicit sex scenes. I have no problem with sex scenes when done well, but, like every other aspect of filmmaking, there should be a reason for their inclusion. Several of the love scenes had important narrative and character purpose, and even the graphicness was necessary for clarity. However, many others were frustratingly extended, to the point where banality begins to overshadow any shocked excitement or titillation.
When one hour-long episode has more than 15 minutes spent in the bedroom (and garden, and staircase, and dining room, and anywhere else with a flat surface), it’s gotten excessive. The show has only eight hours of content, with many engaging subplots and likable characters; it’s interesting enough to not require leaning on sex to foster enjoyment.
“Bridgerton” is far from a serious show, but it strikes just the right mix between luridly fun and engaging. Strong performances and character development balance out the soapy sex and romance nicely, creating a thoroughly bingeable and enjoyable series.