Film & Television

‘Bridgerton’: The Raunchy Regency Romp from Shonda Rhimes

If you’ve read any novels or watched any screen adaptations of Jane Austen, you know how Regency romances end. The hero and heroine — despite two or three hundred pages of obstacles that might include pride, prejudice, meddling relations, previous attachments, entailed estates, ocean voyages, a love child or two, or some colorful combination thereof — marry and seal the deal with a chaste kiss.

It’s all very satisfying. But, you might wonder, what happens next?

According to Bridgerton, the delicious new Netflix series from Shondaland, what happens next is sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Sex in a roadside inn, sex in bed, sex on the lawn, sex on the ladder in the library, sex in a garden, in a folly, in the rain. You name it, the gorgeous newlywed Duke and Duchess of Hastings have or will have sex there.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bridgerton is based on a series of popular romance novels by Julia Quinn. The author, whose real name is Julie Pottinger, has an interesting background. Although she majored in Art History at Harvard, she decided (more by process of elimination than anything else) to pursue an MD. Fortunately for her millions of fans, she split her time between preparing for med school and writing two romance novels. She sold her first when she was just 24, and while she did briefly attend Yale Medical School, she refers to it as “a bout of temporary insanity,” and soon devoted herself to writing full-time. She’s had 18 New York Times bestsellers and has more than 10 million copies of her books in print in the U.S. alone. As romance writers go, the woman is no slouch.

Neither, of course, is Shonda Rhimes. Acclaimed and wildly successful television producer, screenwriter, and author, she’s the series creator and head writer (also known as the “showrunner”) of Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Scandal, as well as executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch, and Station 19. TIME magazine named her one of “The 100 People Who Help Shape the World” in 2007. And, ten years later, she entered into a multi-year development deal with Netflix.

The fruit of that deal is Bridgerton, and to say that it’s juicy is understatement of the year.

In Bridgerton, the year in question is 1813. The eight hour-long episodes take place during the London “season,” when the new batch of debutantes are powdered and primped and put on display by ambitious mothers; bachelors shop for pretty brides (with substantial dowries); and Queen Charlotte herself (Golda Rosheuvel) determines which young ladies are “diamonds of the first water.”

One such jewel, whom the Queen praises as “flawless,” is Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of the prominent Bridgerton family. A petite beauty with porcelain skin, she anticipates a delightful season until her brother Anthony (the current Viscount and head of the household since their father’s death) steps in to approve of  — or, more often, disapprove of — her suitors. Meanwhile, a mysterious newcomer appears and captivates “the ton,” much to the disgust of her hostess, Lady Featherington (Polly Walker), who has three of her own unmarried daughters to promote.

Daphne is suddenly a “has been.” But fortunately, she bumps into her brother’s rakish Oxford schoolmate, Simon, the smoking=hot Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), England’s most eligible and elusive bachelor. The two decide to work together, pretending to be an item so that Daphne will attract more notice from single young gentlemen and the Duke will deter the advances of matchmaking mammas. The two bicker adorably and, despite best efforts on both their parts, fall in love. A flirtation with a Prussian prince, countless balls and ballgowns, a forbidden rendezvous, and a duel at dawn follow. The result? Daphne and Simon must marry.

This is where these stories usually end. But not Bridgerton. The wedding night, often left to the imagination, leaves … well … nothing to the imagination. The Duke and Duchess are certainly in lust as well as love, and to Bridgerton’s credit, the explicit and lengthy scenes of physical marital bliss put female pleasure front and center. Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) may not have provided Daphne with much of an education where the birds and the bees are concerned, but Simon is happy to instruct his responsive pupil. But, with multiple episodes to go after the marriage is consummated, the happy couple encounter a seemingly impossible monkey wrench. One of eight children, Daphne is eager to start a family. The neglected son of a hateful and ambitious man, Simon has sworn never to sire an heir.

As the two battle it out (halting their feud just long enough for a steamy session of oral sex on the grand staircase of Hastings Hall), subplots surround them. Can a young woman, deflowered and seemingly jilted, find a husband before her incipient pregnancy becomes obvious? Will a wealthy nobleman have the courage to flaunt his relationship with an opera singer? Does his brother know what he’s getting into when he befriends a bohemian artist? How will the wife of an impoverished gambler afford new frocks for her daughters, much less dowries?

And who, pray tell, is Lady Whistledown, the Gossip Girl of nineteenth-century English society?

Whistledown (voiced by the magnificent Julie Andrews, who seems to be relishing every moment) publishes a scandal sheet that has all of London buzzing. “She names names,” they gasp as they learn each other’s most guarded secrets. The Queen hires private detectives to catch her, while Daphne’s ambitious younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and bestie Penny Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) marvel at the supposed freedom that the woman and her influential pen must enjoy. For the audience, Whistledown serves as sometime voice of reason and delightfully sarcastic narrator.

The look and feel of Bridgerton owes much to recent Austen adaptations (the entire production, in shimmering pastels, resembles nothing so much as a box of macarons from Paris’s famous Laduré — I can’t imagine the budget). But, the cast of characters feels closer to those of Dickens. Along with London’s elite, we meet dressmakers, boxers, entertainers, and domestics. You may need a cheat sheet, which you can find here.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the new series is what’s known in theater as “non-traditional casting.” Described here as “color-conscious casting,” the decision to pursue meaningful inclusion achieves a number of benefits. Fine actors are not disqualified based on race or ethnicity. And audiences are exposed to more diverse depictions of heroines and heroes — in this case, ladies and lords. This is particularly important for younger audiences (but the series is, quite appropriately, rated TV-MA for mature audiences because of all the aforementioned sex).

London’s robust racial mix is explained early on in the series. Simon’s de facto godmother, Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), tells him that society used to be segregated until the King (James Fleet) married a Queen of African descent. His love for her inspired the rest of the country’s gentility to accept each other’s otherness. There is some historical foundation for this; as Quinn recently told The Times, “Many historians believe she had some African background. It’s a highly debated point and we can’t DNA test her so I don’t think there’ll ever be a definitive answer.” Several portraits of Charlotte, particularly those by abolitionist Sir Allan Ramsay, portray her with African features.

Bridgerton is a sumptuous and utterly bingeable pleasure. The performances are first-rate, the sets and costumes stunning, and the story, although predictable, is engaging. You’ll find yourself trying to figure out Whistledown’s identity (not too hard, although a red herring or two is thrown in for good measure) and wondering if Daphne and Simon will work things out (rest assured, of course they will). Whether you manage the entire series in one sitting or pace yourself over the course of several days, you’ll look forward to future seasons.

After all, once Daphne is settled, there are still seven more Bridgertons.

 

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