Kay: Watching Bridgerton

Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page star in “Bridgerton.” Credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix

I wanted to get 2021 off to a good start, so I binge watched Bridgerton over New Year’s Eve and Day. I had been so excited to learn that Shonda Rhimes would be producing this mini-series that I subscribed to Netflix streaming several months ago just so I could see it.

[Spoilers start now] I had high hopes for this production, and in many ways I wasn’t disappointed. The costumes! The settings! The characters! Those dance sequences! When a development company hurls money at a production like this, it really pays off. The series is spectacular to look at, a visual treat of the highest order.

However, Bridgerton isn’t flawless. I was unenthusiastic about some of the things the producers added to the source material—the angsty overtone, and interpreting Anthony as a jerk, which was a huge mistake in my view. And they left out Julia Quinn’s original witty dialogue, which was a sad loss. However, overall I was thrilled that the story really was a romance—a story in which the principal plot is the courtship between Hastings and Daphne, which I thought was fizzy and delightful. And they didn’t back off from the menstrual blood.

All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job until I read the review in Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  Among concerns that include casting and depictions of consent, Smart Bitches commenters were unhappy with the depiction of race. They pointed out that two Black characters (Hastings and Mrs. Danbury) remark that Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry helped to elevate Blacks to the peerage. But the discussion ends there, and none of the White characters talk about race at all. “That’s all we get?” was the consensus. Several of the Smart Bitches commenters thought that the Danbury/Hastings conversation protected White viewers from having to think about race.

Salamishah Tillet, a New York Times cultural critic, agrees, saying that the decision to have only the Black characters talk about race “risks reinforcing the very white privilege it seeks to undercut by enabling its white characters to be free of racial identity.”

I’m not sure what exactly what to make of this analysis. We’ve been watching colorblind casting for quite a while now (I can go back to 1961, when Mickey Rooney played a stereotyped Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it goes back a lot further than that), and as time goes on, the issues seem to get ever more complicated. Even Hamilton, which became rather a standard bearer for casting actors of color as historical White figures, has come under the microscope. As Maya Phillips, another NYT critic says:

[P]roductions that would subvert a narrative traditionally owned by white characters must not just tag in actors of color but reconsider the fundamental way the new casting changes the story. In “Hamilton,” the revision of American history is dazzling and important, but it also neglects and negates the parts of the original story that don’t fit so nicely into this narrow model. The characters’ relationship to slavery, for example, is scarcely mentioned, because it would be incongruous with the triumphant recasting of our country’s first leaders.

I hear you asking, But what does this have to do with Bridgerton? Well, that’s kind of what I’m wondering.  According to Julia Jacobs of the NYT, Bridgerton‘s creators were irritated when their casting choices were called color blind. “That would imply that color and race were never considered,” showrunner Chris Van Dusen said, “when color and race are part of the show.”

I enjoyed this new costume drama for all the escapist fantasy it offered—which was a lot—and I thought it touched on race and class about as heavily as one might expect Shonda Rhimes to do—which is to say, lightly. It seemed to me that to do more would be to create a different period piece, one not written originally by Julia Quinn and brought to the screen by the people that brought us Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy.

What do you think? Have you seen Bridgerton, and did you enjoy it? If they create a second season, do you want more Simon and Daphne, or do you want Eloise or maybe Penelope Featherington?

And for a fun look at the work that went into the costuming, check this out:

7 thoughts on “Kay: Watching Bridgerton

  1. I haven’t watched the show yet. I was actually only lukewarm about the Brigerton books to begin with. They were entertaining, and I enjoyed the witty dialogue, but I’ve never felt pulled to go back and read them again. Maybe I should give them another try. It has been decades and my tastes have changed.

    As for the Netflix show, I think people will always find something to criticize. I feel like “The costumes! The settings! The characters! Those dance sequences!” are the main point of the show, not the depictions of race, and it sounds like the show delivered well on those.

    I’m interested to hear what others think about the series. As an aside, when talking to my grown son the other day he asked if I’d heard about a show on Netflix called Brigerton (which he has been watching). That tickled me.

    • It’s hilarious that your son is watching Bridgerton and you aren’t! (And, btw, I enjoyed learning that you and he painted to Bob Ross videos over the holiday.) He sounds like a special kid.

      I can forgive a book a whole lot if the dialogue is good, and I think Julia Quinn does dialogue exceptionally well. (Does that sound like some kind of editorial porn? “Julia Does Dialogue…”) That’s what gave me so much pleasure reading the books and why I was so sorry the show producers didn’t use any of it. But they sure made up for it in costuming.

      Also, you’re right that people will always find something to criticize. I’m going to sit back and revel in my memories. Or, wait. I could just watch it again. Because, those COSTUMES. Those SETTINGS. Those DANCE SEQUENCES.

  2. I’ve never read read Bridgerton but I loved the show. The costumes! The settings! The dancing! were enough to satisfy my admittedly shallow tastes.

    I loved spending a few hours in a world where people existed side by side without a huge chasm of inequality separating them. I read romance for escape and Bridgerton provided that.

    • I totally agree. Highly enjoyable as escapist fare. Somewhere on YouTube I saw a little video of the work that went into the costuming, and I’m going to look for it again and see if I can post it up here. I think Daphne had 100 wardrobe changes, all the dresses made by hand. Something like that.

  3. I read the books and loved them. I’m in the middle of watching the show and I like it for the most part. I think they’ve added some stupid stuff. But I do love Eloise. I hope they follow the books. That would make The Viscount Who Loved Me next – Anthony’s story. And Anthony being a jerk would work well for that story. He definitely has jerk tendencies in that one.

    • I enjoyed the books, too, although I’m not sure I’ve read all of them, since I didn’t make a concerted effort to read them all at once in and in order. Good to know that Anthony is next and his current jerkhood will fit right in, because I also don’t like a lot of what they’ve added. I read an interview with Regé-Jean Page, who seemed to think there would be a second season and it would be all about him and Daphne again, which I hope they don’t do.

  4. I read the series EONS ago and don’t remember anything from any of the plots of the books, so for me, watching it was just fun. Fun that it was a romance front-and-center, fun that there was a diverse cast (I took the diversity as “we’re not looking at skin tone, but at actor ability, and, oh yeah, this is how history should have been to begin with,” which might be incredibly shallow. So call me shallow. Does EVERYTHING have to be political? Perhaps so, in which case I’ve missed the point), and fun for all the things Jeanne mentioned. I’d definitely watch a second season, and yes, I hope they expand on the other characters in the family, because otherwise, what drama or tension can we have between Daphne and Simon that hasn’t already been covered? It’s not like Outlander where they have to hie off to a new world.

    There were a few folks in some of my Regency FB groups who were complaining about the lack of historical accuracy (mostly in terms of costumes — women weren’t wearing gloves, married women weren’t wearing caps, ladies weren’t wearing bonnets, and *gasp* Simon’s lack of a proper neckcloth), but I think of this show as a Regency-esque series. It’s not hard-core A&E P&P. IMHO, historical “accuracy” is a farce anyway. Short of living in that time-period and seeing exactly what ladies wore and how people acted/interacted, we’re going off the historical cleansing that happens when one “remembers the good old days.” Heck, I learned when researching for a class I taught on the alcohol gentlemen drank during the Regency that 1) port was the most consumed beverage (not ale or gin…that was for the poorer folks/common man), 2) There was an honor code around drinking. If your friend was doing it, so were you, and 3) Men were REALLY drunk during this time period. That’s definitely not reflected in the books I read about the period, fiction or otherwise. Scholars think the more conservative Victorian era blotted out the shadier side of life back then, and so we think *this* (whatever *this* is) is what life was like during the Regency.

    So I’ll watch Bridgerton (again), swoon over the costumes, forget about gloves and cravats, get lost in the dancing, and enjoy it for what it is…a love story set in a Regency-esque world.

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