Historical drama season is once again upon us, and Netflix has successfully delivered. Based on the novels by Julia Quinn, the new series Bridgerton follows the eponymous family through the Regency Era, as its eight siblings navigate their way through love, high society, and scandal. The whole series is narrated by national treasure Julie Andrews, who departs entirely from her usual wholesome, all-singing, all-dancing roles to embody London’s tattletale, the anonymous Lady Whistledown. But Julie Andrews isn’t the only actress who subverts expectations, as the series brilliantly surprises audiences with unlikely performances from other superb actors. Hilarious Derry Girls’ Nicola Coughlan plays sympathetic Penelope Featherington, plagued by unrequited love; Jonathan Bailey, known as the pestering journalist Oliver in Broadchurch and the complicated Sam in Crashing, transforms into the burdened eldest Bridgerton brother Anthony; and my personal favourite, Ruth Gemmell, previously Tracy Beaker’s mum, becomes the elegant, widowed matriarch of the Bridgerton family.
In certain ways, Bridgerton is like many of the other period pieces we already have. The brooding Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page) takes on very Poldark-esque qualities: rebellious, prideful, smouldering… A strong and silent type who develops a turbulent yet loving relationship with Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor). Tropes of illicit love between those in different echelons of society, marital duties, and iconic slow-motion shots of people twirling and falling for each other on the ballroom floor are also very similar. However, the series introduces new perspectives and ideas rarely before seen in period pieces. It delves into subjects often deemed taboo by society then and to some extent now too. Sex, menstruation, and masturbation are depicted, in a way not often seen in historical literature and TV, which instead usually rely on the unspoken, on subtext, on tension arising from stolen glances across ballrooms, or the lightest brushing of hands. Bridgerton shows the shocking contrast between the public sphere, where everyone acts with the utmost righteousness and virtue, and the illicit activities that unfold behind closed doors.
This less censured depiction of the characters’ lives means that new, creative, and interesting plot lines can be introduced. Arguably one that really stands out is the revelation of the true extent to which women were kept in the dark about marriage and sex. Sweetly naïve and comic scenes emerge where firm friends Penelope Featherington and Eloise Bridgerton attempt to find out where babies really come from, while slightly patronising, older siblings laugh at their efforts. On the flip side, however, this lack of understanding leaves other newly married women feeling a deep sense of hurt and betrayal, as the men around them use their cluelessness and innocence seemingly to their advantage. Marital dynamics become infinitely more complex, turbulent, and poignant.
Bridgerton has also been lauded for its inclusivity. In the series, we find slivers of queer representation that are hoped to be expanded in potential future seasons, as well as the choice to cast a black Queen Charlotte. However, having a colour-blind casting leads to certain inconsistencies arising later in the series. The Duke of Hastings has a conversation with his mentor Lady Danbury, who speaks of the freedoms and positions of power they have been granted by having a black monarch, yet the series depicts an ostensibly utopian society with no traces of racism in sight, rather than a complex situation and potential tensions of a society where this form of racial equality has been recently achieved. Attitudes seem to have shifted unrealistically quickly. This conversation between the Duke of Hastings and Lady Danbury is the first and last time race is ever mentioned in the series and leaves much to be discussed.
There is no doubt Bridgerton has been a global success. With its intricate characters, perfect blend of comedy and drama and wonderfully stunning visual elements, this period piece is easily bingeable and loveable. It combines a quintessential feel, fitting perfectly alongside the already impressive repertoire of historical dramas, with an exciting sense of newness and uniqueness. All the while, each episode is underscored by classical, string versions of modern-day songs such as Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’, which create similar feelings of unexpectedness as the outlandish dance scenes in The Favourite. This series isn’t perfect; there are certain contradictions that throw the audience slightly and make it difficult to situate or pinpoint it precisely. However, there is still hope, as there is a chance that these inconsistencies could be further clarified in a foreseeably equally enjoyable second series, that will be eagerly anticipated by newly converted Bridgerton fans.