It’s hard not to think about Downton Abbey when watching Bridgerton, the new period drama on Netflix from prolific producer Shonda Rhimes.
Both are splendid melodramas in quite magnificent costumery and sumptuous locations.
Bridgerton is based on novels by US author Julia Quinn, set in the high society of Regency England, 1813. That’s also the year in which Pride & Prejudice was published, and the influences are easy to see in a world where keeping up appearances must be maintained at all costs.
Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) is the central character, the pretty but unmarried eldest daughter of wealthy widow Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell).
Yet as our occasional narrator -more on her shortly- warns us, “The brighter a lady shines the faster she may burn.”
Amid a smattering of society balls elder brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) rules out potential suitors and burn she does, metaphorically, when a gossip sheet soon makes merry of her single-dom. It’s as if Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters are watching on from the sidelines at Daphne’s failed coming out…
She is briefly doomed to be hitched to the detestable Nigel Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish) when handsome Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the Duke of Hastings, arrives in town …yet he has his own complex backstory and a tempestuous made-for-unresolved-sexual-tension chemistry sparks between our two heroes.
Meanwhile the Featherington clan, headed up by matriarch Portia (Polly Walker), daughters Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), Prudence (Bessie Carter) and Philipa (Harriet Cains), have their hands full when visiting cousin Marina (Ruby Barker) presents with a scandal that could herald a calamity.
The other key player in proceedings is Simon’s de facto mother Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) dripping in money and too-cool-for-school wisdom and style, and who frankly should be born in another era.
If it feels like a lot of players, it surely is, but writer Chris Van Dusen keeps it all together via the narration from the mysterious scandal sheet author Mrs. Whistledown -a kind of period Gossip Girl who observes all and distributes the muck through her powerful inked feather. Cleverly, the voice of one Julie Andrews steps up to the plate with aplomb, and the occasional plum in mouth.
It’s all terribly familiar, yet soapily alluring, as the action pivots around the steamy, not so McDreamy, Simon and young Daphne. I lost count of the balls, dances, parties and galleries from which whispers were shared across crowded floors and gentleman callers were just about ready to duel for any maiden’s affections.
Bridgerton is heavy on female perspectives, clearly knowing its target audience, with lines like, “You have no idea what it is to be a woman. What it must feel like to have one’s entire life reduced to a single moment. This is all I have been raised for.” Smouldering Regé-Jean Page gives Aidan Turner’s Poldark a run for his money as a shirtless period matinee idol and is well-matched with Phoebe Dynevor (Younger, Snatch, Dickensian). Nicola Coughlan is also a delight as Penelope.
The production design is quite exquisite, although includes some CGI, with a wardrobe that will be landing nominations next year. There are occasionally contemporary themes woven into the story (I did enjoy the classical music renditions of Billie Eilish and various modern pop tunes). It also wouldn’t be truly Shonda Rhimes without diverse casting. Black high society characters mingle with white in this Grosvenor Square, including the interracial lead couple.
When all is said and done this feels like an American storybook version of British society, and melodrama it may be, but it lacks the authenticity of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. I guess sometimes all you want is a scandalous tale, a sexy cast and some fabulous costumes.
Bridgerton certainly sets up a grand house of cards it is ready to plunder.
Bridgerton screens Christmas Day on Netflix.