I have a healthy tolerance for junk TV. Yes, OK, sometimes even an appetite for it. I can admit, with only a twinge of embarrassment, that I’ve watched all of Emily in Paris. Just as there are times when fast food hits the spot, there are times when a serve of trashy TV is just right.
Which is why my escalating antipathy as I ploughed through Bridgerton (Netflix) surprised me. By halfway through its eight-part first season – a second has recently been announced – I was thoroughly sick of the Bridgertons, their nasty neighbours, the Featheringtons, and most of London’s Regency-era high society. Even with the elaborate costumes, the lavish balls, the spirited sniping and the ostensibly steamy romance and hot sex. Even with its megaphone-blasted theme of female empowerment wrapped in a bodice-ripping yarn.
Doe-eyed English rose Daphne (right) spends a lot of time looking fragile and pained in Bridgerton.Credit:Liam Daniel
For, unlike several recent examples of impressive period drama, from Downton Abbey – whose success sparked historical drama’s revival – to Belgravia and The Crown, Bridgerton is flimsy, repetitive and achingly dull.
The plot is as thin as a London society belle; the unsurprising dramatic developments are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; the characters are mostly caricatures; and anything vaguely notable is constantly repeated.
A disapproving housekeeper frowns, purses her lips and shakes her head in every shot. A nasty neighbour brays and whinnies at her triumphs, which we know are likely to be short-lived, while her gaudy wardrobe loudly announces her terrible taste. The bitchy blonde is unremittingly bitchy. There’s a pair of gormless sisters who look like they’ve stepped straight out of Cinderella.
“It’s got the frocks and the orgasms, but little of the subtlety or substance.”
The heroine, doe-eyed English rose Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) – porcelain skin, swan neck, inner turmoil stoically masked – spends a lot of time looking fragile and pained before she mines her inner steel. Meanwhile, the hero, Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page), is as darkly handsome, troubled and sexy as Mr Darcy, also a catch whose unease can be mistaken for arrogance.
For Bridgerton, based on novels by Julia Quinn and created for TV by Chris Van Dusen (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) for Shonda Rhimes’ company in its premiere Netflix outing, is a stew of ingredients harvested from elsewhere. Jane Austen looms large, but so do Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars with their viperish narrators who appear to have all the dirt on everyone while concealing their own identities. Here, the shenanigans and scandals of high society are chronicled in a hungrily consumed newsletter penned by Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews).
The series has received favourable responses for its spotlight on the toxic nature of social constraints, its championing of female empowerment and particularly its welcome attention to female sexual pleasure. But the fact that it’s flying the flag for subjects that are pretty safe to support isn’t sufficient to overlook its fundamental flaws in scripting, casting and character development. In those key areas, Bridgerton is sadly deficient.
It essentially offers two and a half major plotlines: the romance between Daphne and Simon, the predicament of Miss Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), who comes to live with the awful Featheringtons, and the affair between Daphne’s older brother, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), and a socially unacceptable opera singer (Sabrina Bartlett), which is more like a side dish. There’s barely enough to sustain an episode, let alone a season.
Jonathan Bailey as Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton, the eldest Bridgerton son.Credit:Nick Briggs
The ups and downs of the romance between Daphne and Simon pivot on a deathbed vow he made to his father and become increasingly creaky as a device as the season drags on.
Meanwhile, in the realm of repetition, Anthony feels the weight of being the man of the house since his father’s death. He’s also seen to be trapped by expectation and convention but can be relied upon to make the wrong decision at any significant juncture.
Eloise (Claudia Jessie), Daphne’s younger sister, is an emerging feminist who buzzes about like an annoying wasp. She indignantly and incessantly bangs on about the shabby deal that women get in the scheme of things, until you long for her to shut up, even if you share her views.
The mostly unremarkable cast resembles the Grey’s Anatomy line-up of pretty people with a few who stand out from the pack. But given that the pulse and focus of the story lie with the thwarted passions and ambitions of the younger characters, one possibly unintentional outcome is that some of the older women have the most potent screen presence: Ruth Gemmell as Lady Violet, Daphne’s knowing and empathetic but socially stifled mother; Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury, Simon’s regal, canny guardian; and Golda Rosheuvel as the gossip-hungry, haughty, magnificently bewigged and privately pained Queen Charlotte.
To its credit – and there aren’t many positives – the series is blithely and convincingly colour-blind: the acceptance of black and brown characters in London society is briefly attributed to the king’s falling for Charlotte, his black queen.
Beyond that, though, it becomes clear that not all period dramas about England, class, fraught romance and family obligation are created equal. Shaped by an American sensibility, Bridgerton features few of the nuances or complexities that Julian Fellowes (Downton, Belgravia) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) draw upon so knowledgeably and effectively. Instead, it operates with broad, brash strokes. It’s got the frocks and the orgasms, but little of the subtlety or substance.
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