Shonda Rhimes' First Netflix Show Bridgerton Is a Lavish Period Spectacle That Goes Wildly Off the Rails
BRIDGERTON (from left to right) PHOEBE DYNEVOR as DAPHNE BRIDGERTON and REGƒ-JEAN PAGE as SIMON BASSET in episode 101 of BRIDGERTON Cr. LIAM DANIEL / NETFLIX © 2020
Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page in 'Bridgerton' Credit - Liam Daniel / Netflix
Seldom has the line between love and hate been so thin as in nineteenth-century novels between wanton young women and the curious men who, after a few hundred pages of argument, come to adore them. Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Jo March - all initially clashed with their future husbands. And although the strict advertising rituals of the time are largely out of date, Anglophone pop culture retains its cravings for such pairings. Hence Austenmania, Downton Abbey and, most recently, the BBC's post-colonial Indian drama A Suitable Boy, not to mention contemporary romance films from Gilmore Girls to Twilight.
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The tradition continues at Bridgerton, a lavish Regency-era spectacle by venerable executive producer Shonda Rhimes that will bring down Netflix subscribers' digital chimneys this Christmas. Oddly enough, the show made me feel a bit like Mr. Darcy the other day. In the first half of the season, I loved it enough to marry it. Then ... well, hate is a strong word. Let's say I was gripped by a fear that Bridgerton wasn't quite the same show I had so hastily given myself to.
Based on Julia Quinn's bestselling novels, it opens on the eve of the London social season in 1813. Our heroine is Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor of Younger, equally sharp and engaging), the eldest daughter in a large, noble family and the pride of her widowed mother, the devoted Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell, refreshingly understated amid many great performances) . . Violet married well, but also out of love, and her firstborn dreams dream of doing the same. Chances appear to be in Daphne's favor after Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), whom she considers "flawless," starred in an auspicious new gossip attributed to a Lady Whistledown (voiced by) Julie Andrews, who also narrates the Series acts).
Nicola Coughlan, Polly Walker, Harriet Cains, Ben Miller and Bessie Carter in 'Bridgerton'Liam Daniel / Netflix
It is a shame that her older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), Bridgerton's heir, has to get in the way, convincing that none of her potential applicants for Daphne is good enough or financially solvent enough. Soon, the only noble he hasn't scared off is the rude Nigel Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish), and an undesirable proposal seems imminent. If only Anthony's dear friend Simon, a.k.a. the rich, moody, arrogant, smoldering hot Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page of Roots, who appears to be slated for a future Sexiest Man Alive list) would have the intention of getting married. But hey, that's not a problem for Daphne. She calls Simon a rake in front of his face at a dinner that is supposed to bring them together. Despite obvious chemistry, she's certainly not attracted to him. No, really not even a little, why do you ask? So if the two of them advertise to get Simon's legitimate aunt (Adjoa Andoh) out of his case and take advantage of men's competitive instincts to get Daphne new applicants, what could possibly go wrong?
As this familiar, but initially addictive, story unfolds, creator Chris Van Dusen (a Shondaland staple since the early seasons of Grey's Anatomy) introduces the Bridgertons' neighbors, the Featheringtons. The tasteless Lady Portia Featherington (Polly Walker), dressed like Cinderella's wicked stepmother on a vacation in Palm Beach - and firmly convinced that her daughters look equally ridiculous - pushes all three of her girls into the marriage market at the same time over protests by the bookmaker Penelope (Derry Girls) 'wonderful Nicola Coughlan) whose taller, slimmer sisters determine their looks. While none of the Featheringtons compares to Daphne, the family's lovely new ward, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), makes a fine impression. But she has secrets, just like Anthony and Simon and almost every other character that isn't the nerve-wracking sane Daphne. Plus, no one can find out who this creepy omniscient Lady Whistledown really is.
If everything sounds like Jane Austen is hitting Gossip Girl and PBS's masterpiece, then that's because it is initially. True to Rhimes' sensibility - one that is as evident in Bridgerton as it is in its quintessential Scandal - emotional, fast-paced storytelling seems to have a higher priority than historical accuracy, though the show doesn't display any anachronism like Hulus The Great or Apple Dickinson. The production design of Will Hughes-Jones (The Spanish Princess) is exquisite: the interior of an opera house is wrapped in velvet curtains and heavy fringes. Each ball (there are eight) takes place in its own paradise; Crowded dance floors sparkle with crystal chandeliers and fresh flowers, while an al fresco celebration impresses guests with a canopy of primitive electric light. Any empire waist dress is art, although the corset underneath could draw blood. The dialogue is snappy and the mutual desire that Dynevor and Page evoke is so alive it almost hurts to see it.
Adjoa Andoh in 'Bridgerton'Liam Daniel / Netflix
The problem arises halfway when conflicts within multiple characters' relationships create redundancy, and the chaste sexual tension of four episodes gives way to a meaty soft-focus aesthetic that Skinemax may owe more than, say, the much alluring Outlander. (Don't let the December 25th release date fool you: a family binge session could get pretty awkward. "We're not doing your grandmother's show," Van Dusen said, and that's for sure.) This bursts with a tone shift all the subtlety of the Kool-Aid man through a wall. It is true that there is a solid thematic reason for the abruptness (unfortunately, it's a spoiler). Some of Bridgerton's sharpest and most original moments come when it comes to the consequences of the vast differences in worldliness that separate spoiled debutants from the men they marry. But the attempts at a 200 year old dirty talk are less sexy than embarrassing. And there is no obstacle to descent into absurdity if - how to put it carefully? - the physical details of human reproduction dominate the action.
At this point, so many other weaknesses that are easy to ignore in the beginning are no longer to be missed. Fascinating characters like Daphne's younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie from ITV's 2018 Vanity Fair miniseries, in a charismatic twist as a free-thinking detective tracking down Lady Whistledown) are never fully developed. Marina is such a cipher and Penelope such a typical ugly duckling that when a rivalry arises between them, some nasty tropes about young women and love also pop up. One of the best things about Bridgerton is the inclusive casting that brought people of color into all walks of life in 19th century British society. But instead of letting great performances by Page, Rosheuvel and Andoh, among others, speak for themselves, the show offers an alternate explanation of the story that is so vague, belated, and ambiguous in its relationship to actual story that it only creates plot holes.
Bridgerton is the first series to emerge from Rhimes' paradigm-shifting Netflix deal for $ 100 million in 2017. The elaborate scale reflects how much time and attention she and Van Dusen's team have invested in visual details. I also suspect that - like most of the previous Netflix editions of Rhimes' mega producer Ryan Murphy - it will be far more popular with viewers than it is with critics. It's a fun show, at least for a while. The escape quotient is high, especially at the end of a year with no parties or robes or skin-to-skin contact between people who are not yet sharing a bathroom. And it's exciting to see Shondaland, who has spent so many years recording the adventures of professional superwomen of the 21st century, playing around in a genre where feminist empowerment is more difficult to achieve. If only the font matches the production values. But Rhimes has certainly brought shows back from the threshold before - and so, like a lovely debutante dubbing her hand, Bridgerton deserves another season on the social calendar.
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