Sometimes, it can feel as though television series arrive exactly when you need them to, and Netflix’s lush period drama Bridgerton is precisely the show our particular moment requires. True, the story is not exactly a serious drama—at least, not in the way we normally like to think of historical period pieces. This isn’t The Crown. It isn’t even Downton Abbey. And viewers shouldn’t expect it to be. But that’s okay, because Bridgerton is perhaps all the better for understanding exactly what kind of show it is, and leaning into its identity with its whole heart.
As we stare down the barrel of a dark COVID-19 winter, avoiding family holiday gatherings and waiting for our turn to get the vaccine that might allow us something like normal lives again, this colorful confection of longing glances, gorgeously anachronistic gowns, and social politics feels like a beautiful gift. It is pure, swoony joy from start to finish, a delightful bit of escapism into a world that is rich and fully realized, populated by feisty heroines and dashing dukes, as well as their cinnamon roll siblings and hot mess friends.
An adaptation of the popular series of books of the same name by Julia Quinn, Bridgerton follows the story of the eponymous Bridgerton family, a large, charmingly Austen-esque brood of generically good-looking brunettes and their slightly overbearing mother, who’s much nicer about trying to marry them all off than Mrs. Bennet ever was.
In this first season, based on the novel The Duke and I, we follow eldest daughter Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) as she makes her debut into London society, an event that seems destined for success until her brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) begins ruling out all her potential suitors, often for reasons he doesn’t bother to consult his sister about.
With the men of London either uninterested or driven away, Daphne eventually finds herself targeted by Lady Whistledown (incredibly voiced by Julie Andrews), the anonymous author of a Gossip Girl-style scandal sheet whose pages mock her as a failure. Desperate to save her reputation, she strikes a deal with Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the roguish Duke of Hastings, newly returned to town and eager to stop marriage-minded mothers from shoving their daughters at him.
They plan to fake a courtship, allowing him to stay single and her to look like a much more desirable prospect for the men around town. If you’ve ever in your life read a romance novel or even seen a rom-com or Hallmark Christmas movie, you already know exactly how all this is probably going to go down. But Bridgerton somehow manages to make everything about this story feel like the first time we’re seeing it, all over again.
Part of that is due to the wonderful chemistry between Dynevor and Page, who are dynamite together. But it’s also because Bridgerton is almost completely uncynical, full of characters who desperately believe in love, and who unabashedly hope for the best lives possible even though they know the world they inhabit is deeply patriarchal and unfair. The supporting cast is full of fascinating, well-rounded figures, whose stories I hope will continue for many seasons to come.
From Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jesse), Daphne’s outspoken younger sister who wants to forge her own path in a world that limits her options, to sweet Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) who just wants someone to see her for who she is, there are so many great women in this universe, of all ages, agendas, and types. Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury is particularly wonderful, a steely-eyed realist who gets all the best lines and is the sort of immediately iconic acerbic dowager figure who deserves a seat of honor next to Violet Crawley.
Yet, Bridgerton also clearly aims to be something more than just a pleasant diversion for those of us who can’t get enough of the classic fake dating trope. (Which, again, we love to see it!) A steely feminist thread winds throughout the series, as Daphne and the other women of the ton push back against a world that too often denies them even the illusion of choice in their own lives or repeatedly leaves them to clean up after the men around them.
Sex is also treated in a groundbreakingly female-centered way, as something that is simply part of Daphne’s awakening as a person, and a method by which she gains a deeper understand of who she is and what she wants. Though there are certainly some steamy scenes, none of them are exploitative or objectify any of the female characters (though several men do seem very fond of taking off their shirts at a moment’s notice). It’s a refreshing perspective that more series—period dramas or no—could stand to learn from.
Bridgerton is not the best show I’ve seen this year, technically speaking, but it is perhaps my favorite. Only The Queen’s Gambit has come close to matching the feeling of warm, thorough satisfaction one experiences while watching it, and if this show doesn’t bring an entire army of new devotees to the world of period dramas and historical romances, something is very, very wrong. (Just put the BBC’s North and South in your streaming queues now, folks.)
The series somehow manages to feel both comfortably familiar and completely brand new—an effervescent, romantic romp that centers the female-gaze and spirit in a world that too often views women as little more than objects. Its cast is effortlessly diverse, with actors of color inhabiting roles that range from marriage-minded young women to the Queen of England. A contemporary pop score (featuring classical instrumental versions of everything from Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” to Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood”) hums underneath key scenes, and gives everything a fresh, modern feel.
The costumes aren’t exactly historically accurate, but they are vibrant and full of life, the kind of things that are closer to what we might secretly envision women in this period wearing … or perhaps designs we might want to wear ourselves right now, just saying. (Though, fair warning if you spend a lot of time watching Jane Austen adaptations, their complete lack of bonnets will take you a while to ignore.)
Most important of all, though, Bridgerton is swooningly romantic, a story of love both real and pretended, featuring a pair of deeply charismatic and, yes, extremely attractive leads. (So! Attractive!) But it is also a story of family and friendship where every plot twist and relationship shift manages to feel completely and thoroughly earned.
Thanks to a combination of timing, source material and casting, Bridgerton is probably going to be a big hit. And to be honest, it deserves to be. We deserve more shows like it.
Bridgerton premieres in full Thursday, December 25th on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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