With viewership from 82 million member households in its first 28 days online, Netflix is hailing “Bridgerton” as its biggest-ever debut for an original series on the streaming service, Variety has learned.
In her first interview since being elevated to Netflix’s head of drama development last fall, Jinny Howe — the exec who nurtured the Shondaland series — discussed the cheeky, steamy period romance as well as several other dramas Netflix currently has in the works.
Much like a coupling in an epic romance, Howe’s pairing with “Bridgerton” seemed meant to be. Around the same time that Howe joined Netflix in early 2018 to oversee serialized character dramas, Shondaland had already set its sights on adapting the Julia Quinn novels as its first project under Shonda Rhimes’ overall deal with the streamer, with Chris Van Dusen as showrunner. And it just so happened that when Netflix had asked Howe, in an interview, what she would pursue if she could make anything, her answer was: a Regency romance show.
Romance, oft-maligned and mocked, is Howe’s favorite genre as a consumer. And the success of “Bridgerton” may give the category some added decorum among its peers: the streamer also shared that the series is its most-watched show in 83 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Brazil, France and South Africa. The program has made Netflix’s top 10 list in every country except Japan.
“I wonder whether it’s the lens with which we’ve evaluated content in general,” said Howe of the genre, “if we’re really looking through a female lens and understanding, yes, it’s romance, but to not distill it to something so simple, because there are very complicated female characters at the heart of these stories that I think really resonate with fans.”
The program’s first season explored an eldest daughter’s debut to the London marriage market, as well as her sexual self-discovery – the latter of which thrilled and shocked some viewers who were perhaps expecting a more buttoned-up story. Season 2 of “Bridgerton” goes into production this spring.
But Howe is quick to note that Jane Austen, for example, was well ahead of her time in focusing on women who questioned cultural norms and the restrictions they faced. And developing the series through a female lens was important to the “Bridgerton” creators.
“Even the more steamy scenes were really choreographed and designed with that in mind – that this is really a female lens, and really empowering to women,” said Howe. “So I feel like that was very much a North Star in terms of how we were going to craft the narrative.”
Howe stepped into the role of vice president of original drama development following a structural reorganization last fall that put Bela Bajaria at the head of Netflix’s global TV operations. The longtime TV exec, who prior to Netflix spent 13 years at John Wells Productions, has taken the reins of drama development at a time when the service has surpassed a whopping 200 million paying subscribers amid a cutthroat direct-to-consumer landscape.
Between “Bridgerton” and “Queen’s Gambit,” Howe sees their popularity as proof that period dramas are not limiting — and that creators in this area seem to be energized.
“It’s been really exciting to see,” she said. “I’ve experienced, even just in terms of material that’s been coming in, that it’s reinvigorating passion in this area. I like when we’re not confining ourselves to following an anticipated pattern or theme, because I think we always see really exciting zags and I think that that opens up so many different avenues in terms of storytelling.”
Beyond that, Howe remains focused on nourishing series that include strong characters that viewers will root for, as well as creating a broad spectrum of shows that, echoing what other Netflix execs have said in the past, will carry everyone’s favorite show on the service.
“I’m excited about the diversity that we have,” she said “We have a lot of really female-forward storytelling that’s coming up as well. And I like that we’re being bold. Given that we have such a wide playing field, I think we really are going to take a lot of different types of swings and are excited to work with new voices and talent as well to see what that looks like too.”
Of the projects she has in the works right now, Howe is amped about Alan Yang and Min Jin Lee’s adaptation of Lee’s acclaimed 2007 novel “Free Food for Millionaires,” as well as Adam McKay’s “Kings of America.” The latter is a limited series starring Amy Adams that centers on three women — a Walmart heiress, an executive and a saleswoman — who filed a class action lawsuit against the biggest retailer in the U.S. And next up on Shondaland’s slate is “Inventing Anna,” the story of con artist Anna Delvey.
Howe is focused both on originals as well as projects rooted in existing IP. And as the streaming market reaches fever pitch, it has actually been “really exciting to see the competition heat up a little,” she said.
“It’s great for not just me as a consumer, but I think it’s great for the business as well,” she said. “The marketplace is very competitive, and I think we are seeing a lot of really exciting projects that feel like really cool swings with people who haven’t done television before… Because there are so many different platforms to take your content to, it’s encouraging a lot of people to play more in this space.”
And though Howe, Van Dusen and the Shondaland team certainly could not have anticipated the rough 2020 that the pandemic would bring, the timing of the release of “Bridgerton” wound up being a welcome salve for viewers in need of escapism.
“I do think that I am seeing a pivot in terms of people wanting things to feel a little more aspirational and just escapist and feel good,” said Howe. “It’s hard to know where we’ll be a couple years from now, but I think that this is going to be the trend for a while. I imagine it’s going to continue to go this blue sky, feel-good route.”