Bridgerton: Season One-Review
Not that it's a question you've ever possibly pondered, but there's something pleasing in watching Bridgerton and realising halfway through the first episode that what Shonda Rhimes' first production for Netflix amounts to is effectively answering the query 'what would Gossip Girl be like if Jane Austen was the author?'.
In this case, however, Kristen Bell is swapped for Julie Andrews when it comes to the voiceover, although given that it's the former Mary Poppins delivering the witty observations of all the scandals going on here right from its opening moments, it's hard not be entertained right from its opening moments. Clearly, no expense has been spared for Bridgerton. Released on Christmas Day by Netflix, the series is the perfect type of period drama to win over a large audience sitting down for the evening as they fall into a food coma after having consumed large quantities of turkey, ham and bottles of Shloer.
It was only up until a few years ago that Downton Abbey was winning over large numbers of television viewers after a day of eating a well-cooked meal and exchanging terrible jokes buried within a Christmas cracker, but aesthetically, being a period drama is where comparisons end between something like Julian Fellowes' now-iconic drama and the first Shondaland production to come from Rhimes' lucrative deal with the world's biggest streaming service. Rhimes' deal with Netflix came not long before Ryan Murphy made a similar one. In that time, Murphy has cranked out two seasons of The Politician, one season of Hollywood, one season of Ratched, and the films The Boys in the Band and The Prom, both of which premiered this year, and all of which are productions of varying quality. It's perhaps the greatest evidence one could provide that quantity doesn't always equal quality.
Opposite to that, Rhimes has taken her time to bring out her first Netflix production. Like Murphy at cable channel FX, Rhimes was pretty much cranking out hit show after hit show for Disney's ABC network, and it says a lot that her first creation there, Grey's Anatomy, is still going strong today, the lone survivor of the 'Class of 2005', the year that also boasted the premiere of other long-running series such as Supernatural, Bones and Criminal Minds, all of which have now completed their runs while Meredith Grey still goes strong and shows no signs of concluding yet. From there, Rhimes brought audiences (amongst others) Grey's Anatomy spin-off Private Practice, as well as Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, all of which won acclaim and awards for their ability to marry network television gloss, with colour-blind casting and engrossing writing that made those shows great to look forward to weekly, or binge not long after. More importantly, they also put front and centre brilliantly written female characters that became iconic.
Bridgerton arrives not created by Rhimes herself but by Chris Van Dusen, adapted from the novels of Julia Quinn, but it feels very much as part of one with the Shondaland empire. Unlike Murphy's series where his company logo is placed at the conclusion of the end credits, the Shondaland logo is emblazoned on the screen right after the Netflix one. The series is glossy, well-produced, cast to perfection and dotted throughout with actors of various races. Above all else, it's wickedly entertaining, managing the feat of being both something of a soap opera and a witty, raunchy drama.
Van Dusen is one of Rhimes' regular collaborators having worked on Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal, and like a lot of previous Rhimes productions, there is a something pleasingly feminist about the whole endeavour. Even one of the most potentially problematic moments of the show, the Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page) essentially mansplaining female masturbation to Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), turns into something more erotic and feminist, while also drawing attention to the sexist contradiction at the heart of the high society it was depicting.
Daphne's inability to actually control her own destiny, even down to the man she might want to marry, is evident right from the opening episode, and this extends even to her own exploration of her sexuality which, as she and the Duke lament, is something that is not taught to her even while the rigid social structure of the times is trying to marry her off to a good suitor. Love and romance and what a woman might actually want are factors that are never thought about as these women are essentially sent out into a world of well attended upper-class parties in the hope of finding a man. It all comes down to money, class and whether or not the men in question are a 'good fit' regardless of whether or not love and romantic feelings are brought into the equation, and the same goes for sexual compatibility.
There is an even degree of sex-positivity to the first half and Daphne's exploration of herself, although some of the goodwill that you might find that comes from that dissipates in the sixth episode which has a scene that will no doubt invoke much debate upon the nature of consent and which leaves a somewhat queasy taste despite how good the rest of the series is.
The way in which Bridgerton explores these ideas makes it a very modern show, even if the costumes, plotting and dramas surrounding familial destinies, particularly that which the Duke of Hastings has to face, initially feel as if the series might be similar to something the BBC might put out on a Sunday evening. Instead, it walks a delicate tone that manages to embrace just what it is that makes period dramas still, to this day, massive rating winners for the likes of the BBC and ITV, but which also gives it a modern finish that will no doubt draw in a large audience of young adult viewers who might not find much appeal in the likes of Poldark or Victoria, even if they do put young, good looking actors front and centre of their ad campaigns.
If anything, there is just a touch of the modern, anachronistic spirit of something like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette just hanging off the edges of proceedings here. Modern music is dotted throughout, although sneakily it's performed on screen by classical musicians within the scene, while the modern approach to its themes and ideas means that while it gets to revel in the costumes, the sets, the gorgeously designed mansions and townhouses, it does so while being relevant, new and somewhat original, which given that period dramas are a genre that has been around for as long as there have been television screens is really saying something.