As a huge fan of historical romance, I once longed for Netflix to make a lush, extravagant, twisty series in the vein of the books I loved. But now that it’s actually gone ahead and made one, I’ve found that I have to eat my words.
Bridgerton, Shonda Rimes’s first collaboration with Netflix, promises a story of upper-crust debutantes with secrets and their fight to marry well in Regency London. But instead of filling that opulent, 19th-century setting with true passion and heart, the show comes off like many of the aristocrats it’s skewering: soulless and vapid.
That’s not to say that I didn’t inhale the entire first season anyway. Written by Shondaland veteran Chris Van Dusen (Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy), Bridgerton’s eight episodes fly by, and its Regency-era setting is easy to get lost in. It even utilizes two of the most irresistible plots in romance history: fake dating and a marriage of convenience.
But Bridgerton’s story of two neighboring London families and the blossoming romance between a debutante and a mysterious duke ultimately contains more window dressing than substance. It pivots around deeply shallow characters, conniving matchmakers, and turgid sex scenes — and even includes a distressing onscreen rape that’s never really addressed. It all makes for a compulsively snackable marathon, but it’s not easy to digest in the end.
Bridgerton is based on romance veteran Julia Quinn’s epic eight-part romance novel series of the same name. (That might sound daunting, but for the romance genre, a series of that size is fairly common.) The series, like most historical romances, sets itself within a loose version of the Regency period — that particular moment of pre-industrial 19th-century Britain when London aristocracy was rich and bored enough to revolve around an annual “season” of nightly parties and events. (The era was named after George IV, who at the time was prince acting as the Regent — or proxy ruler — for his father, George III, who had succumbed to his famous “madness.” “Prinny” was mainly known for caring more about high society, or the haut ton, than boring government concerns, and the Regency period likewise borrowed his character traits of frivolous vanity.) London social functions had a complex etiquette and were usually held with the tacit purpose of matchmaking eligible men and women. This ritual, as the show explains to us early on, was known as the marriage mart, and as ridiculous as it might seem now, the stakes were very high.
So many romance novels have been set in this period that “regencies” form their own subgenre. Usually, however, the mainstream media only bothers with the Regency when it’s adapting a Jane Austen novel — puzzling since she only wrote six of them, and annoying since they were all set far from London, where all the action of the era was centered. Indeed, Regency London is the sort of heady, scandal-ripe setting that pairs perfectly with the soapiness of Shondaland storytelling.
The moment the title card for the first episode, “A Diamond of the First Water,” appeared, I felt the thrill of recognition known to anyone who’s grown up with shelves full of regencies filled with such idiomatic references. The phrase conjured up the insular, coded vernacular of the regency novel: lords in deerskin trousers and Hessian boots that judged the ton through quizzing glasses and wielded intricate put-downs at the famous gentlemen’s club White’s, where the layers in a man’s cravat and the elegance with which he drove his curricle determined where he fell along the narrow spectrum of fashionable gentility — whether he was a true Corinthian or a mere fop. Women in empire-waisted sprigged muslin dresses would exchange delicious innuendo-filled barbs with reformed rakes over lemonade at the famous assembly rooms at Almack’s, and Prinny himself would occasionally appear to create havoc like a deranged Muppet. Reader, I could not wait.
Bridgerton delivers on some of these luxury items, but it also applies a few prominent twists to this old formula. The Prince Regent is nowhere in sight; instead, Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, presides over London society, in a casting choice that leans into recent arguments by historians that the queen may have been Black. The aristocracy itself is likewise peppered with men and women of color elevated to their positions by the benevolent king, whose madness renders their social status precarious.
Chief among these gentry of color is dashing rake Simon, the newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page, exuding so much ripped-shirt romance hero energy, even fully clad). Despite his eligibility, for reasons of his own, Simon has vowed never to marry.
But Simon isn’t prepared for the gorgeous debutante Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the fourth child of a powerful aristocratic family. Among Daphne’s siblings are the reckless elder son, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), and her ballroom-hating younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie), both of whom loathe the marriage mart for very different reasons. Daphne, however, immediately becomes the prize of society: She draws praise from the queen herself and the attention of so many suitors that Anthony begins fending them off in droves, suddenly possessed with a nigh-sociopathic certainty that none of the men are good enough for his sister.
Across the street from the elegant Bridgertons are the hapless Featheringtons. With a degenerate father and a tasteless mother, the three Featherington daughters are unfortunately dowdy marriage mart goods — and that was before their gorgeous cousin Marina (Ruby Barker) abruptly came to stay with them. Marina trails gossip and scandal in her wake, thrusting all of the Featheringtons uncomfortably into the spotlight, overshadowing Daphne. This development unfolds much to the glee of a pseudonymous scandal sheet writer known only as Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), who turns the aristocracy on its ear by naming names. Daphne, the scandalmonger declares, is out — Marina, in.
As her prospects for a suitable marriage wane thanks to the double whammy of her brother’s interference and Whistledown’s disapproval, Daphne takes her fate in her own hands and negotiates a fake courtship with Simon, having judged correctly that her star will rise once more if she’s seen with a duke. Simon has no plans to marry because of his aforementioned vow, so their arrangement allows him to avoid seriously participating in the marriage mart — but of course, in between bickering and pretending to be in love, the two fake lovebirds soon develop a very real romance.
Because of all those inescapable Jane Austen adaptations, you might think that a show like this would focus on creating then resolving tensions en route for the couple to marry, ending with a wedding. Bridgerton isn’t done pulling romance tropes out of its pockets, however. Through an unlucky turn of events involving epic misunderstandings, fights, and secret love trysts — the usual — the storyline scoots Daphne and Simon into a hastily arranged marriage. This leads to lots and lots of sex scenes, but also creates a whole new set of problems arising from the secret that underpins Simon’s original vow never to marry.
This subplot contributes to Bridgerton’s most interesting thematic idea: the relationship between scandal, secrets, and informed consent. The show highlights the way scandalous withheld secrets can be tools of power or forms of entrapment, particularly for members of society who had little control over their circumstances to begin with. But this idea also leads to the show’s wildest and most alarming moment — a moment of non-consent that arguably undermines all the work done to explore its unwieldy power dynamics.
Throughout Bridgerton, characters use secrets to exert control over their social positions. That’s nothing new for such romances or for the Shondaland oeuvre. But what’s interesting is how frequently the show frames these scenarios through the perspective of the non-consenting party who’s been duped due to a kept secret. Simon’s secret threatens his entire relationship with Daphne. The Featheringtons as a household are at the mercy of their father’s secret gambling addiction. And Marina tries in desperation to find someone who will marry her before a scandal around her own secrets breaks and destroys her reputation — and his along with her.
Yet despite its attempts at raising issues of consent and control and how they operate in society, Bridgerton rarely moves below the surface. The show fails to consider its potent class differences beyond perfunctory nods, and for all its attention to diversifying its cast, it doesn’t actually diversify its focus on characters or explore what interesting perspectives and conflicts its diverse cast might bring to the story. Half-hearted attempts to inject queer characters into the mix come off as nearly homophobic rather than tantalizing. Simon’s best friend, a boxer, is essentially just a device — at times a literal punching bag — to remind Simon of his working-class roots within the Black community and for other characters to react to. A working-class opera singer and would-be courtesan gets some rote speeches about her lot in life — as does one servant whose only real role is to deliver a hilarious monologue about how none of the Bridgertons’ servants have any time to moonlight as Lady Whistledown because they’re too busy being, uh, servants.
Marina’s storyline offers the show its best chance for delving into these areas — but instead it’s Marina’s arc that epitomizes how shallow Bridgerton ultimately feels. Instead of fueling an interesting exploration of how the aristocracy might react to a poor, clever woman of color like her, she gets turned into a device for drama between the Bridgertons and Featheringtons. She’s used to center the Featherington’s own issues with class, money, and race; then she’s used to raise questions of informed consent surrounding her attempts to marry well. But after being turned into a convenient social justice megaphone, she’s eventually handwaved into the sunset with little to no development or greater lasting impact on the plot or the other characters.
The show’s sidelining of its characters of color and its other marginalized characters is an uncomfortable position for the show to leave us with. It’s especially frustrating in Marina’s case because her story arc puts her in an overtly predatory position which the show does little to ameliorate; she’s one of two main characters of color holding a huge secret over the heads of their (white) love interest while manipulating them.
In Simon’s case, as the other main character of color, his duplicity is a bit more unwitting — but it’s still a major plot point, and it contributes to the show’s most galling moment, in which a character rapes another character in a way that’s fast, fleeting, and seemingly brushed-over. In the Bridgerton novel The Duke and I, author Julia Quinn clearly wrote the corresponding scene as non-consensual, and the creative team changed some details to make it less rapey — but that just makes it unclear to me whether the creative team realized that the scene they left in the storyline was still non-consensual.
This deeply disturbing scene alone undermines the show’s work at exploring consent issues — and lacking even that thematic complexity to ground it, Bridgerton falters badly in the home stretch. Its most interesting ideas — like Simon’s precarious place in society as a duke of color or his mysterious time abroad — get almost no attention. Most of its characters are unlikeable, flat, barely developed, or all of the above. The other eight books in Quinn’s series focus on each of the other Bridgerton siblings, but it seems improbable that the current cast, particularly Bailey as Anthony, the next sibling in line to be married off, can carry such a frivolous story for many more rounds. Even the eventual reveal of Lady Whistledown’s identity seems more like an afterthought than a grace note on careful character development.
I hate to conclude as much because Bridgerton has so many flourishes of Regency romance that are delightful to see brought to life on the screen. The production values are sumptuous; there are fanciful strolls in Hyde Park and gorgeous lantern shows at Vauxhall.
It certainly looks like a true Regency — but if there’s anything the genre has taught us, it’s never to judge a romance by its cover.