Words: Bex Young
This article does contain spoilers.
Period Dramas are always a surefire winner with audiences across the globe: Downton Abbey, Outlander, Poldark, to name a few. The gorgeous escape to grand manor houses furnished with four-poster beds and large mahogany dining tables. The luscious gowns paired with dainty silk gloves and whimsical hair-dos. They don’t quite match the current work-from-home looks of loungewear and messy buns.
Bridgerton marks the first collaboration between Netflix and Shondaland, the American production company founded by Shonda Rhimes. Shondaland was built and grown from Grey’s Anatomy (2005), Rhimes’ first series which is currently the longest-running American medical drama and still one of the highest-rated shows within the 18-49 demographic. The screenwriter has produced political thrillers, action-dramas, and even a bit of comedy, but Bridgerton is her first take on the period drama genre.
Bridgerton is based on a set of historical romance novels written by Julia Quinn. They follow the world of high society London (or “the ton”) during the Regency era. It is a ruthless and competitive time where young ladies (known as “debutantes”) were presented at court during the social season. If all goes well, and none of the ton’s societal rules are broken, a debutante will hopefully be matched with their future husband.
On the surface, this seems like a fairly formal affair, considering previous depictions of the Regency era such as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, & Sense and Sensibility. Yet what these films and series lacked was the cheeky, behind-the-scenes outlook that made Bridgerton far more eccentric and gobsmacking.
Labelled “Downton Abbey mixed with Gossip Girl”, each episode is fuelled by the writings of a scandalous newspaper columnist known as Lady Whistledown (voiced by the legendary Julie Andrews). Her identity is a mystery but she never fails to find out the secret gossip and goings-on of the ton which bring their own catastrophic effects to the story.
The primary focus is on the Bridgerton family, moreover, the eldest daughter Daphne. She’s promoted as the season’s “incomparable” after winning the praise of the Queen during a large presentation at court. Knowing she essentially has her ‘pick of the lot’, she forms a partnership with the brooding Duke of Hastings (Simon Basset) so she can enjoy the attention of the tongue-wagging suitors who wish to marry her. Hastings pleasantly agrees, knowing it will provide well-needed respite from the eager young ladies (and their mothers) who are hoping to catch his eye.
As the age-old tale usually goes, the pair find that politics becomes the least of their worries. Romance flourishes underneath the daytime strolls and nighttime balls. But alas, no period drama would be without, you guessed it, DRAMA: there’s more ups-and-downs in this thing than a theme park rollercoaster.
From secret mistresses, hidden pregnancies and even murder(!), Bridgerton has got it all: it’s like if Coronation Street was set in the 19th Century. But one thing nobody saw coming was the naughty sex scenes, furthermore the number of them, that caused families everywhere to cringe in fear and embarrassment.
Illustration by Emma Lammie
The freedom of streaming means that series don’t have to consider the rules of the watershed when making television so Shonda really didn’t hold back knowing she could go all out. The first episode (literally three minutes in) gives viewers a wee taste when we see Anthony Bridgerton sneaking for a quickie with his mistress behind a tree, with his footman on the lookout so nobody spots the pair defying society out in the open.
You can’t even call that a starter (more like the first appetiser) as from here the level of sex just grows and grows. Episode 6 in particular, which has been called “The Honeymoon Episode”, is jaw-dropping and completely racy: not once has any TV audience seen oral sex on a library ladder. A favourite quote that describes the series perfectly said: “for those who love Pride and Prejudice but wish it had more stairway sex”.
Despite the raunchy undertones, Bridgerton appears to be a resounding success and one of Netflix’s greatest achievements thus far. In its first 28 days of availability, the series was watched by 82 million households making it the most-watched original series launched on the streaming service to date.
The combination of classic narrative tropes, pop-culture references (who else has played the string version of Thank U, Next on repeat?) and integration of a racially-diverse cast of characters make Bridgerton the stand-out example of what a 21st Century period drama should look like.
While it demonstrates elements of alternative history, the depiction of a racially integrated Regency Era (which was inspired by historical debate about Queen Charlotte’s ancestry) feels poignant and transformative following the events of the Black Lives Matter movement last year.
Not many series can boast that their renewal announcement came only a month after the series release date and Bridgerton totally deserves this achievement. It has what Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times calls an “unmistakable binge twinge” which means you are utterly gutted when the “Next Episode” button doesn’t do its usual appearance at the end of Episode 8.
As viewers will know, the season 1 finale revealed the identity of Lady Whistledown and the Duke and Duchess reached a big milestone in their relationship (you’ll have to watch to find out though).
Hopefully, the follow-up will have as much drama as its predecessor but, as a wish from all of us who watched Bridgerton with their parents, please be a bit more obvious as to which moments we need to shield our eyes with pillows from the sofa.
We don’t need that second-hand embarrassment quite as much the second time around.
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