Bridgerton (2021-2022) is a slickly-produced costume dramedy that boasts great estates, a dandy score and characters who use words like “countenance,” “vexed” and “conjugal endeavors” in a politically correct England.
While bringing Julia Quinn’s Regency-era romance novels to the small screen, creator Chris Van Dusen and producer Shonda Rhimes opted for an integrated cast. Although it soon becomes unnoticeable, the lovers at the center of Season 1 are played by Black actor Regé-Jean Page and white actress Phoebe Dynevor.
Page makes a debonair Duke of Hastings, who is white in the book. A similar handling is given to Season 2’s heroines. Initially described as pale and blonde, sisters Kate and Edwina are charmingly portrayed by the not-pale and brunette British-Indian actresses Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran.
Traditionally cast performers including Jonathan Bailey, Claudia Jessie, Ruth Gemmell, and period piece veteran Polly Walker of Emma (1996), The Woodlanders (1997) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (2003) also play their parts with panache.
The Netflix original series is narrated by Dame Julie Andrews, who played the Queen of Genovia in The Princess Diaries (2001) and the Queen of the Kingdom of Far Away in Shrek 2 (2004). Had Bridgerton been set in Genovia or another imaginary country, perhaps Shondaland, its colorblind casting could have sidestepped accusations of color-baiting and the erasure of Black British (and women’s) history.
Nevertheless, the casting works since it gives viewers a chance to envision themselves in a lavish world that admittedly glosses over past injustices. At worst, Bridgerton ignores the era’s inhumane underbelly and, at the very least, contains a variety of inaccuracies.
Set in 1813, every bride wears a white gown even though that didn’t become fashionable until Queen Victoria walked down the aisle in 1840. The series also depicts a husband so contemporary, he remains in the bedroom as his wife gives birth. And while women of the time were considered the property of men, most of Bridgerton’s females possess more confidence and candor than those currently on the women’s swimming team at Penn.
Of course, audiences aren’t streaming Bridgerton for a treatise on the sexual and racial failings of the 19th century any more than they tune into Grey’s Anatomy (2005-2022) for medical advice. These productions are meant to entertain in an escapist way.
Despite borrowing heavily from “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice,” it’s unfair to compare Bridgerton to Jane Austen. It is what it is and that’s a fantasy. The show’s popularity proves there is a market for romance novel and soap opera inclusion.
Yet for all of Season 1’s bodice-ripping sex scenes and the ever-so slow-burn yearning of Season 2, Bridgerton isn’t solely filled with pro-marriage ideology. As Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) notes, “A life of independence is no consolation. Indeed, many would think it the better prize. After passion cools and fate intervenes, who else is a woman left with but herself?”
Seasons 1 and 2 of Bridgerton can be viewed on Netflix.