Netflix’s smash hit “Bridgerton” is much like a Regency-era “Downton Abbey,” with fewer stairs, more gossip and a diverse court of aristocrats, seemingly oblivious to race.
While the plot is convoluted, with clichés universal to almost all sappy romances, this series compensates for some of its shortcomings with its opulent costume designs, backstabbing, gossip and satisfying fight scenes.
Set in a time where women’s corsets are as tight as society’s standards, “Bridgerton” follows the scandalous affairs of London’s high court and the sweeping romance between Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the dashing Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page).
The saga commences in early 19th century England, at the beginning of London’s social season when every aristocratic single woman and man are on the marriage market. Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and Baroness Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) are among the many wealthy women trying to pawn their children off to the highest suitor.
When Daphne makes her entrance into high London society, she catches the eye of many potential suitors. Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), the wife of King George and a woman of color, labels Daphne “flawless.” She’s got the golden ticket to secure marriage. But her brother Viscount Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) discourages any potential suitors, feeling none are good enough, and ironically offers her to the presumptuous Nigel Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish).
Keen to improve her prospects, Daphne makes a pact with the Duke of Hastings to feign a courtship so he can avoid marriage and she can attract more substantial suitors. Yet, like all clichè romance novels, Simon and Daphne's fake relationship kindles real love. The first half of the season follows the two dancing around each other, fantasizing about kissing and all that romantic jazz.
As a slow-burn romance the pace is frustratingly sluggish, but the climactic build-up is what makes their steamy glances somewhat worth it. There is always the part afterward, and “Bridgerton” falls into the trap of spicing up the plot by throwing in more conflict between Simon and Daphne, then hastily resolving the issue for the sake of a happy finale.
But “Bridgerton” is more than romance. The show attempts to tackle larger themes, especially regarding women taking agency of their bodies and minds. In Daphne’s case, it's the realization that she was kept in the dark, like most women, to be controlled. There is also the well-informed Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews), whose gossipy accounts of courtship affairs offer an intriguing role beyond love and marriage.
The show also defies the norms of historic English royalty by blending people of color into a predominantly white society. The twist is refreshing, but the actual story is shallow. The fact that the show briefly acknowledges race, then sweeps the subject under the rug for the rest of the season, is strange.
While the aristocracy is diverse, people of color are still sparse. The way the show handled Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), a young Black woman who endures heavy scrutiny for her pregnancy, is one example of how the writers glossed over this subject. Rather than addressing the issues of the actual aristocracy through Marina’s struggle, she’s used as a tool to catalyze drama among the Bridgertons.
“Bridgerton” is more of a guilty pleasure to watch than a life-changing series. It’s bad but it’s good, and just steamy enough to keep most viewers ensnared. After enduring the literal garbage fire of last year, this modern and sensual romance may be just what we need to escape to a world where locking lips is not quite as dangerous.