With movie theaters closed, the cutthroat competition for Christmas 2020 viewers is focused on streaming. Last year Netflix dominated the holidays at home with the big-budget, high-profile fantasy “The Witcher.” This time, the champ is back with a whole new type of fantasy series with an adaptation of the Regency romance series of novels known as “Bridgerton.”
Netflix is diving headfirst into a genre usually left for “women’s networks” such as Lifetime and Hallmark: the romance novel.
With this new series, Netflix is diving headfirst into a genre usually left for “women’s networks” such as Lifetime and Hallmark: the romance novel. To be fair, the streamer is not the first to attempt large-scale, prestige adaptations from this section of the bookstore. STARZ, for example, has adapted both Philippa Gregory’s historical romances (like the recent “The Spanish Princess”) and Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” to decent success.
But most of these other forays into romance were billed as genre hybrids. The Gregory series feature real-life historical figures and famous wars. “Outlander” brings science fiction and magic to the table, combining romance with time travel. Other early British, 19th century period pieces for women, such as the BBC/PBS Jane Austen adaptations can claim respectability, given their acclaim and author.
“Bridgerton” features none of these fig leaves. The series is the second Netflix title from Shonda Rhimes, best known for steamy ABC shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How To Get Away With Murder.” Here, she unapologetically serves up joyous sentimentality and bodice-ripping sex in a faux-historical guise. This is an old-school “Regency romance,” where “Regency” is less a historical plot point and more an excuse to rip literal bodices.
Based on the 2001 series of Julia Quinn romance novels, “Bridgerton” is a fantasy, set squarely in the Regency era — 1813, to be precise — and starring the improbably large Bridgerton family, where somehow all eight siblings survived the birthing process, as did their mother. Their father is dead, a tragedy which miraculously also did not leave the family destitute. (Even before someone starts playing Ariana Grande on the pianoforte, reality is not a factor in this world, obviously.)
As with the books, the series begins with middle child/eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) who has come of age and must be presented for marriage. When the mysterious Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews) declares the young woman all but ineligible for marriage in her gossip sheet, Daphne concocts a plan with society’s most eligible rake, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page). The two will pretend to be in love, which will hopefully make her seem more desirable to actual suitors. Anyone who has read a romance novel will deduce just how well that goes for the couple.
“Bridgerton” is the second Regency period piece to attempt to modernize the genre recently. The first, “Sanditon,” which was based on an unfinished Jane Austen novel of the same name, premiered on PBS in January. Writer Andrew Davies chose to make Austen’s work “dark and gritty.” It was one of the rare stories to present this era of English history (correctly) as a not-all-white world, including scenes of racism at dinner parties. Sexual abuse was also treated as a given among the upper classes. Since “Sanditon” has no ending, the series went radical, tossing the expected happy ending with a more realistic one where the hero marries for money and saves his family, leaving the heroine heartbroken. The series was already canceled before it even reached America.
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“Bridgerton” is also here to overhaul the long-held tropes of the PBS costume drama staple. But “Bridgerton” has no interest in dark or gritty realism. Rhimes has reimagined the 1810s as a fully integrated world. So where “Sanditon” leaned into darker themes like abuse and racism, Rhimes leans into sex. Boy, is there a lot of sex. Romance novels are famous for their throbbing members and heaving bosoms, and though “Bridgerton” never quite shows everything (even streamers cannot ignore decency laws), characters jump into bed (and do it up against trees, and in stairwells) with alarming regularity.
“Bridgerton” is also here to overhaul the long-held tropes of the PBS costume drama staple. But “Bridgerton” has no interest in dark or gritty realism.
The back half of the season is actually dependent on certain explicit details of heterosexual sex (I won’t spoil it here), which would have made a more chaste version unworkable. But even when said sex scenes feature questionable behavior, it’s never malicious — and of course, everyone looks great doing it.
But the sex is merely one part of the escapist fantasy “Bridgerton” is selling. This is a series that puts the costume in costume drama. Rhimes seems to have spent the majority of Netflix’s generous budget on clothes. The show claims to have 7,800 outfits over eight episodes, and though there are some that trend toward the historically accurate pale pastels and virginal whites of the time, just as many are eye-searingly bright and sumptuous. Daphne never wears the same thing twice.
An entire upholstery factory must be missing their inventory from the Featheringtons’ wardrobe alone. Queen Charlotte’s wigs make Dolly Parton’s “higher the hair, the closer to god” hairdos look stunted. The Bridgerton family diamonds would set Harry Winston drooling were they real, and Tiffany would eat its heart out in the marketplace for a chance at the necklaces Charlotte’s nephew, Prince Friedrich doles out.
Most importantly for the romance genre, “Bridgerton” doesn’t shy away from happily ever afters. Even those whose relationships falter are merely being set up to fall for the right person come season two. The “Bridgerton” series runs nine books, with a romance for each of the eight siblings. And the good news for fans is that it’s only one corner of the Julia Quinn regency franchise universe, as all Quinn’s novels, from her very first ones in the early 1990s, are set in this same world with characters that crossover from book to book. Depending on just how big a monster hit the show is, this series could run a decade easily. Let’s hope for a dose of “Bridgerton” every holiday season.