Lustier than the average Masterpiece, with tongue planted firmly in rouged cheek, Bridgerton is power producer Shonda Rhimes’ stylish if overwrought series debut at the Netflix ball. With show creator Chris Van Dusen (Scandal) adapting books by Julia Quinn, this eight-part period romance is obsessed with the toxic consequences of scandal, albeit of a comparatively milder variety than on Rhimes’ outrageous ABC melodrama.
All of 1813 London, from commoner to imperious Queen Charlotte (a droll Golda Rosheuvel), hangs on every word printed in Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, an anonymously written pamphlet of insider gossip that’s unafraid to name names and sully reputations. Deliciously voiced by a saucy Julie Andrews, Lady Whistledown is a pot-stirring scold given to making overripe statements like “There is no parasol in the world strong enough to shelter a ruined woman.”
Her gaze is keenly focused on debutante Daphne Bridgerton (the spirited and delicately featured Phoebe Dynevor), christened “a diamond of the first water.” Eldest daughter of a large, prominent family, Daphne is unwilling to bow to society or her overprotective brother in her hunt for a soulmate. So she embarks on a sham relationship with Simon, the much-desired but aloof Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), who for dark personal reasons has vowed never to wed or sire offspring.
With their sarcastic love-hate rapport as a shield, they hope to trick their peers — and even Lady Whistledown — with their faked affections. But dear gentle viewer, it’s obvious they’re only fooling themselves, and sure enough, in due time passion inevitably overtakes reason, and for a while, Bridgerton becomes a full-fledged bodice ripper (and then some) before more complications interrupt their torrid bliss.
Daphne and the Duke’s twisty romance plays out against a busy swirl of subplots, most involving forbidden affairs of the heart and other secrets that could spell disaster should Lady Whistledown blow the whistle. This danger looms most perilously for the Bridgertons’ Mayfair neighbors, the Featheringtons, a family straight out of Cinderella with a conniving mother (the fabulous Polly Walker), three hard-to-marry-off daughters (Harriet Cains, Bessie Carter, and the terrific Nicola Coughlin as plump Penelope) and a knockout of a ward (Ruby Barker) who wows the social scene but has a secret ripe for a Whistledown exclusive.
Bridgerton, which blends ethnicities in Rhimes’ matter-of-fact manner, isn’t shy about depicting the desperate state of women in this judgmental society, and one person not buying all of the heightened nonsense is Daphne’s forward-thinking sister, Eloise (the delightful Claudia Jessie). She sees the marriage market as a trap robbing women of their potential, and spends much of the season trying to discover Whistledown’s identity.
I’d like to think if she had been born two centuries later, Eloise might have grown up to be the next Shonda Rhimes.
Bridgerton, Series Premiere, Friday, December 25, Netflix
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