High-profile American TV producer and author Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) begins her long-term deal with Netflix by producing the historical drama-with-a-twist, Bridgerton. It’s a compelling mix of Downton Abbey, Gossip Girl, Romeo and Juliet, all set in the world of Pride and Prejudice.

Based on Julia Quinn‘s novels and created by Chris Van Dusen, Bridgerton boasts a diverse cast, a pop aesthetic, and the use of modern songs. Part of its intriguing twist is the deployment of the real-life character of the queen consort Charlotte, the wife of English King George III in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz became the subject of evolving discussions about her possible African ancestry and ethnicity after the publication of a book in 1940 by a Jamaican-American writer.  

Gossip and love scandals in the Regency era

London, 1813. The social season has officially begun. Competitive young debutantes are presented at court. Besides, the race to secure the most profitable marriage begins. Among the young ladies introduced to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) is Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). Daphne is the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family. The head of the family is her older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey). He strongly rejects any potential suitor of his sister. Therefore, Daphne makes a deal with the bachelor Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). The two will pretend to court each other. But what starts as a game can turn into something more. And the mysterious Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews), makes things worse as the author of a high society scandal sheet that spares no one.

Rewriting history

The show uses a clear narrative ploy and changes the past context in which it sets its intrigue to create an alternate history. The story builds around the contested origins of Queen Charlotte. The viewer is thus immersed in a fictionalized version of the royal court in which black people play significant roles of power. In this regard, Ryan Murphy‘s Hollywood (2020) is another Netflix show that uses the same narrative ploy as Bridgerton.

The show’s message of integration becomes explicit through Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and her words to Simon: “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.” Thanks to this ploy, Bridgerton represents the world we live in and includes dialogue that reflects on the present, such as the one that Regé-Jean Page had with The Oprah Magazine.

Women, sex, and pop music

A significant element of the show is its exploration of the role of women from a modern perspective. This happens through the characters of Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan). They both want to be independent and liberate themselves from a society that is hierarchically and socially restrictive for women. Especially Eloise, who is determined and feminist in her confidence and explicitness. The show doesn’t hold back from its depictions of sex. The viewer gets to follow the characters into the bedroom and all that lies within it. Jane Austen might well have blushed. These themes make it similar to other TV shows such as Dickinson (2019) and The Great (2020).

Another factor that makes Bridgerton into a revolutionary period drama is its innovative use of music. The American group Vitamin String Quartet adds a modern twist to the series. Indeed, they cleverly perform classical covers of today’s pop hits and adapt them to the context of 19th century London.

The first season premiered on Christmas Day 2020. It pulled in a viewership of an estimated 82 million households in the first month, making it the most-watched series on Netflix. Addictive, with sumptuous sets chosen from some of Britain’s most beautiful country houses, costumes as colorful as aristocratic Regency London in full swing, and characters to match, it proved perfect for binge-watching. The good news for those who are already hooked? A second season is on its way.