No one can lay a special claim of ownership on the TV period drama. It is not sacred space or a part of a historical preservation act. It’s make-believe, and therefore communal property. The crunchy gravel, the chandeliers, the gardens, the grand foyers, the full-length gloves, the piano forte, the needlepoint, the riding boots, the love letters sent in great haste. All of this is surely fair game for fresh takes just as much as, say, the hospital drama, the legal thriller or the noir mystery. These deeply entrenched genres are in constant need of a satisfyingly new spin.
This is the prevailing thought when one watches Netflix’s enjoyably rambunctious (if a tad overblown) period drama “Bridgerton,” the first big offering to come out of the streaming giant’s significant deal with Shonda Rhimes, the gifted and enviably intuitive executive producer of such broadcast network hits as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” (among others).
Based on Julia Quinn’s best-selling romance novels and created by longtime Rhimes collaborator Chris Van Dusen, “Bridgerton” (eight episodes, streaming Friday) is less of a wild departure than it appears. The setting — high society in Regency-era London, circa 1813 — provides a visually sumptuous backdrop to explore and deconstruct the most abiding theme in the Shondasphere: love and sex in its many forms, made all the more desperate by the exacting, 19th-century codes of gender, class and suitable marriage arrangements that rule over the inhabitants of “the ton,” who form the city’s tiptop elite.
“Bridgerton,” like the best of Jane Austen, feeds both an obsession and outrage over the treatment of women, whose status and privilege is constantly imperiled by potential lapses of virtue and the merest hint of rumor.
The curveball here — at least the one that will probably raise the most eyebrows — is how the show treats race, mainly by doing away with it. In a firmly White genre set in a resolutely White milieu, the opening episode of “Bridgerton” is forthrightly and confidently race-blind, with actors of color in standout roles, including the male romantic lead (Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, the dashing young Duke of Hastings); a shrewdly observant doyenne (Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury); a young debutante in dire circumstances (Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson); and even Queen Charlotte herself (Golda Rosheuvel).
This will only startle the most recalcitrant of purists, who will already be peevish about “Bridgerton’s” ahistorically casual approach. For everyone else, it should be nothing more than a pleasant and easily received upgrade, on par with progress and laced with the satisfaction of knowing that diversity lifts both the industry and the viewers. The only time it becomes obvious is the show’s own misstep, with a stray moment of dialogue that comes about halfway through “Bridgerton’s” arc: A Black character stops to explain, grandly, how and why this society came to be integrated. (Answer: because the queen is a person of color.) Not only does it not make much sense, but it seems like an unnecessary wrench thrown into a completely sensible and revisionary romp: People of color are here because they should have been here all along. Isn’t that reason enough?
My interpretation of this aspect may be clouded by all the pretty things to look at. As with any addictive period drama (“Downton Abbey” readily comes to mind), one can spend too much time theorizing and not enough time succumbing to the romance of the setting, the lust in the hearts, the desperate scheming and swooning. That’s what we’re all here for, right?
In that regard, “Bridgerton” chugs deliciously along for at least five episodes before it starts to convolute and collapse on itself. The plot, accordingly, is swift and silly and scandalous: It’s “the season,” in which the ton’s families present their eligible daughters in a never-ending series of balls and other gatherings (but mostly balls), all of it made more desperate by the sudden presence of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), a pseudonymous, all-seeing gossipeuse who publishes a weekly pamphlet with her latest observations: Who’s up, who’s down — the young women and their families live in fear (and fascination) over what Lady Whistledown’s column will say next. Even the queen is a loyal reader.
Lady Whistledown has declared Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell) and her late viscount husband, to be the season’s “diamond,” the top prize to be had by the most worthy bachelor. Will it be the smoldering Duke of Hastings (Page), for whom Daphne is already feeling deep stirrings, or the visiting Prussian Prince Friederich (Freddie Stroma), whom the queen is pushing as a perfect match?
Van Dusen and the Shondaland scribes have no problem expertly layering and braiding the many plots and subplots required to give “Bridgerton” its bounce. Period dramas and prime-time soaps have more in common, after all, than some viewers might like to admit. That there are eight Bridgerton siblings is enough to send the story in several directions, some more promiscuous than others, including that of the eldest son (and de facto protector of Daphne’s reputation), Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who is having his own secret affair with an opera singer, Siena (Sabrina Bartlett).
Lady Whistledown’s column becomes so unnervingly accurate that various characters at one point or another are driven to unmask her — none more so than Daphne’s spunky sister, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who cares not for the thin skins of high society and her own imminent debut, but is fascinated by the idea that this insular world has been undone by a woman who writes, thinks and publishes fearlessly. (Who is Lady Whistledown, really? A critic shan’t say; binge-watchers will get there soon enough.)
“Bridgerton” certainly displays Rhimes’s Shondaland sensibilities. Loosed from whatever remained of broadcast network restrictions when she was at ABC, the sex scenes here are plentiful and steamy, stoked by the culture’s repressive facades. Whenever the series starts to drag (and it does do that, with episodes that are often too long and subplots that dawdle around), the show cranks up some other aspect to keep viewers interested — the vivid costumes, the palatial surroundings, the name-that-tune recognition game when a chamber orchestra segues into classically arranged takes on modern hits (Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande). Like her nearest peer in the industry — Ryan Murphy — Rhimes is the ideal creator for Netflix, which seems willing to indulge just about any impulse, at just about any length, budget and breadth. By its nature, Netflix has shown itself to be tolerant of any show’s bloat. Less is never more, in exchange for the big payoff known as buzz.
The real payoff in “Bridgerton,” however, is a renewed scrutiny on the historical treatment of women and their bodies. Whatever “Bridgerton” has done away with in terms of racism, it reemphasizes in the inherent sexism of the day.
The sheltered young ladies of the ton, especially Daphne, are kept ignorant of the basics of reproduction, leaving them in a constant state of potential shame, even after they are married. Menstrual cycles, the mysteries of ejaculation, the mechanics of pregnancy and gestation, the forbidden wonder of self-pleasure, the indescribable act of intercourse — nearly every plot in the show hinges on hang-ups, making everyone (even the men) doubly miserable. Talk about a period piece.
Eloise Bridgerton sees the hypocrisy clear as day, and perhaps so does Lady Whistledown. But the rest of them are helplessly, hopelessly trapped in a gorgeous yet cruel construct. Whether or not we’ve made any progress, “Bridgerton” cannot really say.
Bridgerton (eight episodes) available for streaming Friday on Netflix.