The dictionary definition of the term “bodice ripper” is: “a novel, on a historical subject, that involves some sex and violence”. Well, now the television equivalent is ripping its way into your lounge room in the form of Netflix’s hit series Bridgerton.
Think Emma meets Gossip Girl and you’ve got a pretty good idea where Bridgerton lives. First-time showrunner Chris Van Dusen cut his teeth on Grey’s Anatomy and other Shonda Rhimes productions. So it’s no surprise he’s back in Shondaland for this series, with Rhimes also a credited producer. The series displays Rhimes’ fingerprints, though Van Dusen arguably pushes the boundaries further than Rhimes usually does.
The show’s title comes from the Bridgertons, an upper-class family living in London. It’s 1813 and, despite the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, London society is gearing up for “the season”. During the season, wealthy families stage a series of balls in hopes of marrying off eligible young (and sometimes not so young) relatives. Of course, they focus mainly on the unmarried young ladies. The Bridgertons’ eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) is about to “walk out” in her first season. But her fortunes rocket when Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) praises her poise and beauty.
A new scandal sheet written by the mysterious Lady Whistledown is circulating to great excitement. Lady Whistledown picks up on the Queen’s endorsement of Daphne, declaring her the season’s “Incomparable”. Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) has taken over as “man” of the Bridgerton house since his father’s death. So he has final say on Daphne’s suitors. He finds them all unsuitable – except perhaps the odious (but wealthy) Lord Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish).
Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) meanwhile has returned from abroad to deal with his late father’s estate. Socialite Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) pressures him to join in the season’s activities, reasoning a new wife would bring the best out of him. Soon, she’s conspiring with Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) to match Simon and Daphne. Upset by their meddling, Simon and Daphne agree to pretend to court. That way, Daphne will be able to reject Berbrook, and garner the attentions of better suitors eager to steal her away from a duke. Simon meanwhile will be able to avoid the attentions of ambitious young ladies and their “mamas”.
Running in parallel with the Daphne/Simon plotline is another involving the Featherington family, and particularly Miss Thompson (Ruby Barker), a country cousin who’s mysteriously been shuffled off to the city for the season.
As you can gather, Bridgerton’s plot is complicated. But that’s only the beginning. As a Shondaland production, it’s going to dive into sensation and scandal wholeheartedly. The violence is relatively mild, consisting mainly of fisticuffs between huffed-up men. The sex ramps up from relatively demure in the early episodes, to full-on in the later ones. Bridgerton naturally explores social mores in the context of early-19th Century Britain. But it also treads unexpectedly into issues around race. The apparently colour-blind casting isn’t quite what it seems. Van Dusen has his characters explain the racial profile of the show; but that doesn’t arrive until episode 4.
For all that though, Bridgerton is a lot of fun. The soap opera dynamics of the show work brilliantly, with Van Dusen displaying a steady hand. Season 1’s eight episodes feature four different directors and seven different writers. But each episode feels like a natural continuation of the last (yes, the “binge” factor is strong with this one). The central characters are complex and their issues are surprisingly relatable. And the plot twists are often delicious.
Bridgerton will appeal to a range of audiences. Lovers of period drama, soaps and scandals will all find something to enjoy here. Some aspects may strain credibility a little, but the show clearly rides headlong into fantasy at times, so asking for suspension of disbelief on occasion doesn’t seem like a stretch. And if you find yourself wanting more, season 2 has already been green-lit.
Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- After Life S2 (Netflix) – streaming review
- 13 Reasons Why S4 (Netflix) – streaming review
- Fleabag S2 (Amazon Prime) – streaming review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television