Netflix’s “Bridgerton” is a sparkling mess | Review
When Netflix and Shondaland’s “Bridgerton” premiered Christmas Day 2020, it was an instant hit. Multiple articles have praised the show as a revolutionary take on the period drama genre due to its inclusion of diverse skin tones in a milieu that has traditionally (and historically) centered whiteness. (Not to mention the explicit sex scenes…) The show is everywhere. It’s reignited a debate over whether Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was black. A growing number of YouTube videos are dissecting the show’s fashion accuracy. A spoon featured in the show received its own Instagram account. And showrunner Chris Van Dusen reportedly would like to adapt the remaining seven books of the series off of which “Bridgerton” is based, so we may be hearing about this show for a very long time.
The first season of “Bridgerton” follows the whirlwind romance of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the fourth child and oldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, and Simon Basset (Rége-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings. Daphne has just made her societal debut. To accomplish her goal of marrying her first social season out, she sets up a fake courtship with Simon. The rest is utterly predictable. Some of the cliché plot points are forgivable seeing as the source material, Julia Quinn’s “The Duke and I,” came out in 2000. But it’s puzzling that the more trite aspects couldn’t be worked into something interesting considering how many other creative liberties were taken with the show, such as the races of certain characters or the inclusion of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel).
Dynevor and Page work excellently with the material they are given, but at certain points in the series, it feels as if their talents are being wasted. I find this particularly true in the case of Daphne, who often came across as a cookie-cutter, perfect, impossible-to-dislike figurehead rather than a three-dimensional character. Besides her primary motivation of finding and marrying her one true love as quickly as possible, we aren’t shown her interests. Unlike her sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie), Daphne has no close friends, detaching her from the larger community. At times, the character feels disconnected from the rest of her family members as well, having very few interactions with them aside from her mother Violet, her main confidant, and her tense relationship with Eloise and her oldest brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey).
Meanwhile, Simon is the standard historical love interest: wealthy, dashingly handsome, and reputably rakish, with a dark and troubled past. Though he’s not presented in the utterly perfect light that Daphne arguably is, the direction his character goes in is frustrating. Simon has legitimate trauma stemming from his abusive father, but instead of being treated as its own problem, it merely serves as an obstacle to his and Daphne’s romance that is ultimately brushed over by the series’ end.
There’s undeniable chemistry in Daphne and Simon’s shared scenes, especially in the season’s first half, which is filled with sexual tension left unresolved due to that society’s strict standards of virtue and courtship. Then, there’s a classic faux rejection scene that could have easily been circumvented with basic communication. The fake courtship ends with them having real but tense romantic feelings for one another. These feelings come to a head at the wrong time, and from there, Daphne and Simon’s relationship takes on a pitiful tone that’s frankly painful to watch.
Then comes that infamous scene at the end of episode six. Like the rest of Simon’s trauma, the implications of this scene are haphazardly brushed off. Even worse, it’s nearly framed by the show as justified, a girl power-lite moment in which the prim and perfect Daphne reclaims agency within her relationship. The scene was incredibly polarizing within the “Bridgerton” audience. It was the lowest point of the series, tainting the otherwise rosy show so much that I stopped watching for a full week before picking it back up again to write this review. Naturally, Simon and Daphne work out their differences just in time for the season finale (note: Daphne never apologizes for that scene), but by then, I was so tired of their messy relationship that I cared little for their storyline and was merely happy the show had ended.
The weakness of the main characters and their muddled relationship should’ve given the side characters and their plotlines a chance to shine, but many of them also suffered from the same problem. Great actors are made to play characters who are boring or annoying. Simon’s boxer friend Will (Martins Imhangbe) is an interesting look into the world of the show’s non-nobility, but he’s mostly there for Simon to dump his life problems and for shirtless scenes. Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) is likable, but the season’s twist ending makes her actions throughout the show seem nonsensical in hindsight. Of course, there are other characters — Anthony is hell-bent on ruining Daphne’s happiness while juggling his duties as a Viscount and his illicit affair with opera singer Siena (Sabrina Bartlett); the second Bridgerton brother Benedict (Luke Thomspon) dives into London’s art scene; Lord Featherington (Ben Miller) gambles away his daughter’s dowries — but frankly they aren’t that interesting. Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Anjoh) are both fun, but unfortunately, we don’t see much of them.
Two standout side characters are Eloise Bridgerton and Marina Thomspon (Ruby Barker). Both serve as foils: whereas Daphne is pure, elegant, romantic, and wealthy, Eloise is more bookish and independent, while Marina is headstrong but down on her luck. Eloise spends the series trying to discover the identity of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), a mysterious woman who spreads high society gossip through pamphlets. It’s a fun break from the other romance-oriented plotlines that will continue into the show’s upcoming seasons.
Marina, a distant cousin of the Featheringtons, starts as major competition for Daphne when it comes to suitors. But when she realizes she’s pregnant, she’s forced away from playful courtships and is pressured by Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) to marry as quickly as possible, so her child isn’t born out of wedlock. After rejecting older men, Marina finds someone around her age to propose to her but has her fortune ruined when her condition is revealed to the community in Lady Whistledown’s pamphlet. Her story ends on a note that is, though realistic, somewhat depressing, and it’s a shame that the show’s only young black female character is given the realistic ending when so many other elements of the show are fantastical.
Race is a topic “Bridgerton” tries to address but handles poorly. Though highly praised, the diversity is wholly for show and occurs mainly in the background. Most of the characters in the foreground — the Bridgertons, the Featheringtons — are white. The characters that aren’t are primarily light-skinned (Simon, Marina, Queen Charlotte) or dead (Simon’s parents). Instead of simply letting the diversity be in the show, “Bridgerton” insists on giving us an explanation: when Queen Charlotte wed King George III, it allowed black people, and presumably other people of color, to enter society’s upper crust. All forms of systemic racism apparently vanished due to the King and Queen’s (now crumbling) romance.
Unlike the small but strange and vocal sect of the internet who hated Shondaland’s choice to “force” diversity into the setting (you’ll find them in the replies of any major news article on the show), I was willing to suspend my disbelief and accept all the fresh faces of color in the main cast and background. In fact, as a young black woman, I was glad to. It isn’t often that black people get to see themselves in historical fiction where we simply exist without the strain of racism. However, my willingness completely dissipated with that reveal. Is systemic racism something that can easily be dismissed with a “Love Conquers All” message? During a time where people are turning to television as an escape from political unrest and a major health crisis, both of which have disproportionately affected black people, this random, reckless romanticism is a bit of a hard pill to swallow uncritically. The show would’ve been much better if it had left that whole spiel out, especially considering how it has handled its black characters’ storylines.
But “Bridgerton” isn’t horrible, despite the stale characters, tedious plot, and odd diversity explanation. Again, the cast did an excellent job with the material they were given. It’s easy to tell how passionate they were about this project. The costume and set design were beautiful and drew me into the world, despite the creative liberties taken with them. The music had the same effect to a lesser degree since many of the pop-inspired classical ensembles were too recognizable during certain scenes. Shondaland did an excellent job of making the show look and sound good. Hopefully, the following seasons will be more substantial.