By Lyndsie Kiebert
As a child of the Shonda Rhimes era of network television, I am always willing to give anything she puts her name to a try.
The woman behind instant classics like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal now runs her own production company, Shondaland, which recently released its first deal with Netflix: Bridgerton. The eight-episode series, which is based on novels by Julia Quinn and written by Chris Van Dusen, dropped on Christmas and has since sent viewers on a whirlwind journey through the high-stakes game of “entering society” in early 19th-century London.
Daphne Bridgerton, eldest daughter of the famed and fortuned Bridgerton family, has officially begun to seek courtship — dubbed “flawless” by Queen Charlotte herself. A series of missteps early in the social season leave her without suitors just as the handsome and extremely unavailable duke of Hastings, Simon, arrives in town. They hatch a plan to pretend to court in an effort to keep eager mothers away from Simon and attract bachelors to the now untouchable Daphne. Despite their apparent dislike of one another, the two have undeniable chemistry, and anyone who understands the Hallmark formula knows where this one is headed.
There are plenty of subplots, too, most regarding forbidden love, familial honor and finding one’s way in the world. Perhaps most compelling is the effort to unmask the anonymous narrator of Bridgerton, Lady Whistledown (ever-so-satisfyingly voiced by Julie Andrews), who authors a widely distributed scandal sheet and seems to know all of the characters’ secrets
Bridgerton is, without a doubt, visually stunning. From the incredible gowns of velvet and tulle, to the iconic sprawling and sparkling ballrooms and courtyards of the Regency era, the show’s crew and special effects team delivered a feast for the viewer’s eyes. Not a scene goes by that some ornate detail doesn’t linger in the mind for a moment longer than it appears on screen. Bravo.
The show’s ability to build investment in multiple plotlines in a short amount of time is also impressive. In fact, that ability had me screaming by episode four — the tension between the characters had become too much, and something had to give. Thank the heavens that things moved forward, because I was starting to think that they’d drag me into Season 2 before giving me what I wanted — no — needed.
Bridgerton does manage to fall flat in some areas. The cast selection, in terms of screen delivery, is a crapshoot. Phoebe Dynevor shines as Daphne, showcasing the perfect combination of class, sass and humanity to be a convincing “diamond of the season,” as Lady Whistledown reports. She creates a stark contrast to her love interest, Simon, played by Regé-Jean Page. I never bought into his storyline or motivations, which seemed strange, considering he is the character to which Bridgerton dedicates its only montage of flashbacks. His performance felt monochrome and forced — not the “Prince Charming” that we romance buffs crave in a leading man.
Adjoa Andoh steals the show as Lady Danbury, serving as a compassionate mother figure to Simon and an unrelenting, no-nonsense voice of reason among the chaos of society. The mother of the Bridgerton gang, played by Ruth Gemmell, also stood out as a strong, funny female character.
In short, the female performances in Bridgerton felt reminiscent of the much-loved female characters of past Shondaland productions: complex but sure, vibrant but completely human. The men left something to be desired — innuendo not intended.
Another aspect of Bridgerton that left me with mixed feelings was the show’s nearly palpable lust. Bridgerton is not for the faint (or prude) of heart, and certainly not for casual family viewing. I must have missed the “mature” rating when I reached for the play button, because the abruptness of the first naked butt left me clutching my pearls.
The sex in this show is romantic, adventuerous and plentiful, but the narrative surrounding “the marital act” — and how little the young women in the show know about it — is cringey and unbecoming to the characters whose innocence comes off as more of the joke than a legtimate aspect of courting during the time period.
Season 1 of Bridgerton left me craving Season 2, despite a few clumsily tied up plotlines and an abrupt change of heart in one of the main characters. I am enraged about the Lady Whistledown reveal, and hanging on to the idea that it’s a deliberate attempt to throw the viewer off the real authors’ scent.
But when the screen went dark and my heart sank at the conclusion of another wild Netflix ride, I realized I would miss the glitz, glam and outrageously tense exchanges characteristic of high-class courtship. Bridgerton does a superb job of tightening the corset strings until the viewer is gasping for air, and then pulling the delicate lacing loose with a satisfying scene. Let’s hope there’s more in store for this posh and popular show.
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