Bridgerton and Shondaland are a match made in Romancelandia heaven. Shonda Rhimes’s studio (which has brought us such massive hits as Grey’s Anatomy) was exactly the right studio to bring author Julia Quinn’s wildly popular series to life. While Grey’s formula for success has remained unchanged over the years, Shondaland has managed to push the envelope over time and they never fail to crank up the heat as far as network television will allow. Bringing Quinn’s series to Netflix affords Shondaland a chance to remove the restraints of network television and find creative ways to tell the story of people navigating the restraints of high society in this fictional 19th-century landscape.
Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen clearly understands what the fans want. Very few are longing for a word for word recreation of Quinn’s series. They want a series that delivers all manners of romantic tropes in the most steamy, sizzling, and sensual manner possible. Where it becomes a bit tricky is framing these in a well-written manner that’s faithful to the universe Quinn created. There’s a distinct difference between a storyline involving “fake dating” and one which is well crafted. Van Dusen exceeds those lofty expectations and opens up this world to new possibilities.
The series follows the exploits of the Bridgerton family. Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) enters London’s social season, determined to find a good match. Over the first season, we are introduced to a collection of colorful characters who make up high society. The Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) whose abs have almost as screentime as he does, Daphne’s oldest brother Anthony (Johnathan Bailey) who is having trouble balancing family obligations and an opera singer mistress, their younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) who shows little interest in conforming to societal norms, and very memorably the Featheringtons who are in many ways the polar opposite of the Bridgertons.
Mama Featherington (Polly Walker) preoccupies herself with attempting to find suitable matches for her three daughters. It is in the Featherington family that we are introduced to a notable new character in Quinn’s universe. Miss Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), is a farm girl who moves in with the Featheringtons to participate in the Season and find a husband while keeping a secret. Thompson’s presence allows the show’s creator Chris Van Dusen to delve into new subject matters on top of complicating the well-known storyline from the novels.
Part of what makes Bridgerton work so well and remain, for the most part faithful to its source material, is how nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Just when we think that we are building towards a classic romantic moment, a twist emerges that causes your head to spin. It is not just a simple rivals-to-lovers narrative. Dynevor and Page’s intense chemistry energizes this entire series. Nothing between these two ever feels forced. There are no confessions of love in raging storms or proclamations of someone having the other at hello. Quinn’s magic comes from understanding that love is often messy. In fact, most of the first season isn’t about how Simon and Daphne met one another but how they survive each other and become closer.
Of course, no Bridgerton series would be complete without the gossip and tawdry musings of one Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), a gossip columnist who names names and pulls no punches. For those who have read the series and are wondering if her identity is revealed, it is, and to avoid Whistledown’s rath, that’s all I’ll say at the moment.
Van Dusen understood how important the social scene was as it pertained to navigating the trials and tribulations of 19th-century romance. Getting married was rarely about love and was instead about setting a young woman up for a life free of scandal and full of security. If her suitor was titled, then all the better. For example, Eloise might not see the need for a man but she can’t deny the necessity of marriage which is why we find her preparing for next year’s social season towards the end of Season One. She might not enjoy it, but Daphne’s sister will too have to play the game.
Bridgerton offers all the pomp of a ball, the steaminess of a midnight assignation with a rake, and the beauty of true love wrapped into a well-written series that understands the balance between tropes and happily ever after.