Jane Austen. “Gossip Girl.” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
Put them together and you get “Bridgerton,” the Netflix and Shondaland sensation that’s so soapy and steamy it’s practically a bubble bath.
The series follows the refined and close knit Bridgerton family, which consists of the Dowager Viscountess Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and her eight children, who are at the social peak of 1813 English nobility. This first season focuses on Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the fourth child and eldest daughter, during her debutante season on the high-class marriage market.
For Daphne and her peers, it is imperative to secure a marriage match before the end of the six-month London social season. Luckily for her, she is aided by Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuval) favoritism, but hindered when a pernicious and mysterious gossip pamphleteer named Lady Whistledown (voice of Julie Andrews) tarnishes her reputation. Daphne seeks to regain her place as the “diamond of the season” by forging an alliance with Simon Basset, the broody Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page).
He is in high demand due to his wealth, status, and good looks, but pledged to never marry and continue the Hastings line as an act of revenge upon his cruel father. By appearing to court, Simon avoids the questions associated with showing no interest in women, and Daphne returns to her station as the most desirable bachelorette.
Long story short, they catch feelings. Through a dramatic series of events they end up married, but it’s not happily ever after yet. Daphne desperately wants a large family like the one she came from, but Simon can’t get past the vow he made to his father. All the while there are several side plots involving the Bridgerton siblings, their rival family the Featheringtons, and the mystery of Lady Whistledown’s identity.
It plays on perennial rom-com tropes like “fake dating situation” and the bad boy/good girl dynamic, but there’s enough things going on outside the main plot to make the show feel fresh and dynamic. For one, there’s the decedent Regency setting to provide constant visual appeal in the costumes and sets.
It’s not meant to be historically accurate, and it’s more of a fantasy version of this era that’s colorful in more ways than one. But the added sparkle on the costumes, the diverse casting, and the string quartet covers of pop songs add appeal to the modern eye, and it’s enjoyable despite its flaws.
And, boy, are there flaws.
The most grating is the lazy writing, especially when it comes to the romantic relationships at the center of the plot. One repeated complaint from other reviews is the lack of chemistry between Simon and Daphne. This misses the deeper problem, because the actors themselves are very capable — the problem is what they were given to work with.
The writers seem to have forgotten the all important rule of “show don’t tell.” I am told that the leads are a perfect match, but what I saw was two side characters with infinitely more chemistry in the span of one conversation than the Duke and Daphne had across the entire season. I am told that Daphne is the “diamond of the season,” but all I saw her do was manage not to faint in front of the queen during her presentation at court.
Additionally, many of the pivotal moments that drive the story forward are contrived beyond belief. Without proper build up, pivotal moments, like Daphne’s decision to turn down a proposal from a prince based on her feelings for Simon, feel arbitrary.
They try to make up for this lack of personal chemistry with sexual chemistry, but it’s too little (or too much?) too late. A good third of episode six’s run time is dedicated to sexy montages of Simon and Daphne, but this doesn’t help to explain why they’re so passionate about each other in the first place.
There are also numerous misuses of dramatic tension. Moments are built up as having huge consequences when they’re revealed in the next scene to be fake-outs. For instance, Daphne rides into the middle of a duel and appears to take a bullet and lies motionless for a minute, just for her to pop up unharmed. One of Daphne’s rival debutantes threatens to spread a rumor that would destroy her reputation, but it never comes to fruition.
But almost despite itself, there’s a poignancy beneath it all. As Daphne and her sister discuss their fears and hopes for their future marriages and families, I saw internal arguments I’ve had with myself played out on screen. There is a beautiful lesson about loving your spouse with your whole self and withholding nothing. It invites emotional investment through the universal relatability of the awkwardness that surrounds looking for a spouse.
Bridgerton isn’t a “so bad it’s good” kind of enjoyable, but rather a unique and sometimes infuriating mix of annoying and perfect elements. With a second season soon to be confirmed, the writers would do well to brush up on some basic rules of storytelling to keep the frustration at a minimum.