This review will contain some spoilers, but that shouldn’t really be a problem —Netflix reported over 63 million views of Shondaland’s Bridgerton in its first 28 days on the platform, which has to be some kind of record. Everyone and their mother seem to have been taken by the charm of its fluffy fantasy world, replete with a hunky, brooding Duke. This may have been awkward for those who actually watched it with their mother, as it takes a very sudden and decisive turn into the realms of soft (soft?) porn around halfway through the season. (Episode 6. You’re welcome.) The production constantly reminds us that it is not attempting to be ‘historically accurate’, but is instead intended to be a kind of fun, contemporary role-play of the British Regency. Examples of this include the soundtrack which includes orchestral versions of Shawn Mendes songs, costume design inspired by modern couture, and most conspicuously, ‘color-blind’ casting.
The story follows the well-behaved but self-possessed Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and her numerous siblings during Daphne’s ‘coming out’ as a debutant. Daphne is introduced to the ‘ton’ at numerous decadent society events where she is expected to find a husband, but her overprotective brother Anthony (Johnathan Bailey) throws a spanner in the works, as he deems no one good enough for his sister. He also happens to be sleeping (very enthusiastically) with an opera singer, who he has no hope of marrying – it seems there is no luck in love for the Bridgerton family. Until, of course, Daphne makes a deal with Simon Basset, the eligible but romance-averse new Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), to pretend to have formed an attachment, which solves both of their problems. The pair hate each other but must pretend to be in love. Then they fall in love for real, making a very attractive interracial couple, despite the fact they have about seven facial expressions between them. WHO could’ve seen that coming? More trials follow for Daphne when she learns that when the Duke says he can’t have children he really means he won’t, and that’s why he…um…keeps cumming in his hand. It has to be said that I truly never expected anything, including Bridgerton, to rely so heavily on the pullout method, apart from, well, some of my friends.
The success of Bridgerton is surely due to its brand of ambient escapism. Somewhere between Jane Austen and Mills and Boon, it combines the chaste thrill of brushing hands with Mr. Darcy with the less-chaste bodice-ripping we must assume happens down the line. The depiction of female desire is pop-approved sex-positive, in line with lots of other well-worn feminist ideology; the rest of the show is similarly geared to de-problematize the cozy classical literary romance genre for a modern audience. Bridgerton seems to aim to be a kind of frictionless refuge for viewers who feel eternally bludgeoned by the iniquities of real life. They clearly aimed to be as unproblematic as possible, addressing (in broad strokes) issues to do with race, class, gender, and sexuality, to create a show their target audience can just get on board with, head empty. And they nearly managed it.
The show’s general aesthetic of deliberate vapidity positions it to repel critical inquiry, but some moments shouldn’t slip under the radar. For one, there’s the strange non-consensual sperm-harvesting moment. It’s difficult to not read this as sexual assault by Daphne on the Duke. The other moment they could’ve just left out is an extremely flippant conversation between the Duke and Lady Danbury in Episode 4, where she explains to him that literally one (1) interracial couple cured racism, and that is the value of love, baby. Many of the main characters in Bridgerton are Black, including the aforementioned Duke and Lady Danbury, as well as the Queen. This casting of Black people in positions of social power doesn’t otherwise feel like anachronistic tokenism, but the show’s poker face cracks badly at this moment. As is already established, the world of Bridgerton is a historically inspired fantasy. It could’ve been a fantasy world where racism didn’t exist at all, and would’ve been more convincing had they left it at that. This apparent half-baked attempt to appease people who would take issue with the show’s ‘historical inaccuracy’ results in a disappointing insensitivity to the real-life work done by anti-racist movements and the individuals who have dedicated their lives to them. By giving voice to anxieties around the show’s reception through a throwaway ‘explanation’ of Black integration the production undermines its own good intentions.
However, Shondaland has plenty more opportunities in the pipeline for more, ahem, happy endings. The show’s commercial success has secured a run of potentially seven more seasons based on each of the books in the Bridgerton series by Julia Quinn, with season two recently confirmed to star Anthony. Maybe they’ll do better next time.
Annoushka is a screenwriting student and an aspiring TV writer based in London. She misses cocktails and spends too much time watching cat videos.