When you press play on Bridgerton, the new historical drama adapted from Julia Quinn’s romance novels by Chris Van Dusen, you’re greeted with the telltale Netflix sound effect over a familiar red “N.” But that intro is followed by another, equally prominent logo: that of Shondaland, the production outfit run by and named after showrunner Shonda Rhimes. It speaks to Rhimes’s abilities that “Shondaland” is practically a genre unto itself, its name alone an accurate preview of the steamy, plot-dense action to come. It speaks to her power and influence that Rhimes’s company gets equal billing with the massive corporation that shelled out nine figures for the chance to work with her.
Bridgerton is not the buzziest of Shondaland’s Netflix projects; that would be Inventing Anna, the upcoming miniseries starring Julia Garner as highly publicized Manhattan scammer Anna Delvey. Nor will it be alone for long: True to the company’s more-is-more approach, Shondaland won’t just own a single night of prime-time programming, as it did at Rhimes’s previous home on ABC. Instead, it’ll act more like a mini-network, including documentaries, a teen apocalypse comedy, and an adaptation of former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s memoir. That this early output can’t be pigeonholed to a single genre or tone is very much the point. Rhimes has cautioned both her employer and her audience that she doesn’t intend for her Netflix slate to be a retread of her greatest hits. “The first thing I said was, ‘You’re not going to get another Grey’s Anatomy—not Grey’s Anatomy in a cornfield, Grey’s Anatomy on a baseball field or Grey’s Anatomy at an airport,” she told The Hollywood Reporter of her first sit-down with Ted Sarandos in 2016. “That’s just not happening.”
Bridgerton bears that promise out, in a way. An ensemble set in the high society of Regency England, known casually as the ton (pronounced “tawn”), Bridgerton is a far cry from the fluorescent-lit halls of Seattle Grace. But it does unexpectedly resemble another, lesser-known Shondaland show: Still Star-Crossed, the short-lived take on Romeo and Juliet that aired in spring of 2017. Rhimes has shown an interest in lush and lusty period pieces before. She just wasn’t able to make them work on broadcast TV.
Not that Bridgerton is purely a Rhimes project. After Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris, Rhimes is the third name-brand showrunner to make landfall on the streaming service after a megadeal poached each of the three creators from their longtime creative homes. But while Murphy has written or directed on all three of his Netflix series to date and Barris cast himself in his maiden voyage, Bridgerton sees a more hands-off approach; Rhimes has an executive producer credit alongside longtime partner Betsy Beers, but otherwise delegates to Grey’s alum Van Dusen and his largely female and nonwhite creative team. That may be for the best. Murphy’s Netflix projects have been largely subpar, while Barris’s #blackAF earned criticism for its “crushing self-indulgence.”
Bridgerton, by contrast—released Christmas Day, for optimal pajama viewing—is an escapist delight. This part of the Rhimes aesthetic has survived unfiltered and intact: From Grey’s to Scandal to How to Get Away with Murder, Shondaland has long known how to take the guilt out of one’s guilty pleasures. It’s something softer and more intentional than camp, which means it’s also easier to package and repeat.
Bridgerton’s namesake is a wealthy, tight-knit family that maintains a residence on London’s Grosvenor Square. Its framing device is the dishy newsletter written and circulated by the pseudonymous Lady Whistledown, voiced with audible relish by the great Julie Andrews. Whistledown chronicles the fetes, matches, and scandals that collectively make up the “season,” which naturally lasts precisely as long as this eight-episode season of TV. Whistledown’s readers are equal parts resentful and rapt, devouring her pamphlets even as they fear her poison pen. If your first thought on reading that synopsis is “Regency Gossip Girl,” well, that’s precisely the vibe.
The Bridgerton choice most likely to make headlines is its casting. The Bridgerton clan—the widowed Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell) and her eight children, four boys and four girls, named in alphabetical order—are all played by white actors. But primary love interest Simon Basset, the mysterious and conflicted Duke of Hastings, is played by the British Zimbabwean actor Regé-Jean Page, already the subject of duly thirsty advance press. (Race does exist in this world, but it’s acknowledged only a handful of times.) Most pointedly, Queen Charlotte herself, who holds court while King George III is indisposed by post–Revolutionary War mental illness, is portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, who is Black.
Such an approach is at once novel and fitting for the Bridgerton oeuvre. Historical fiction about 19th-century Europe is traditionally lily-white. (I love me some Joe Wright Pride & Prejudice, but it doesn’t exactly pass the DuVernay Test.) Yet the show’s approach is also openly fantastical in a way that fits the show’s ahistorical outlook. This is a parallel universe where every character spends their life in transit from garden party to ball, each occasion scored by all-strings covers of modern hits from the likes of Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande.
The second Bridgerton choice most likely to make headlines is the sex. Here lies the most immediate distinction between Rhimes’s ABC and Netflix eras: What if McSteamy could actually get … steamy? Bridgerton takes a while to warm up, but once it gets going, it’s more explicit than a CW show like Gossip Girl could ever dream. Beware of starting as a comfort watch with your mom only to end up avoiding eye contact on opposite sides of the couch.
But Bridgerton is still careful to couch its action in the repressed, deeply class-bound ideals of its chosen setting. Consequently, the show is a heady, contradictory mix of 19th-century social mores and 21st-century attitudes toward nudity, romance, and female pleasure. The entire point of the London “season” is for the aristocracy to perpetuate itself through strategic matrimony before retiring to their country estates; the premiere of Bridgerton coincides with the “coming out” of Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the family’s lovely and charming eldest daughter. An upstairs, downstairs drama this is not—apart from a handful of servants and artisans in small supporting roles, Bridgerton is wholly preoccupied with marriage and courtship between rich people in expensive outfits, just like its characters. But longing gazes and polite hand kisses do not a bingeable quasi-soap make.
And so you end up with a show where the pullout method becomes a major and explicit plot point, but also where two characters have to get married because they once locked lips in a garden. Bridgerton wants to have its mannered, elegant dances and its bodice ripping, too. The result is something one might call sexy without quite being erotic. Watching so many telegenic people share glances and shed clothing feels a bit like watching a kid mash together their Barbie and Ken dolls. There’s not enough delayed gratification for a true sense of yearning, nor enough messiness to make recognizably human relationships. Not that it ultimately matters: Bridgerton makes it easy to get caught up in the flow. Who has time to scrutinize when you’re busy looking up the entire cast on Instagram?
Bridgerton arrives at the cold, lonely end of a cold and lonely year. At a time when so many of us are separated from family when we should be gathered as one, the true fantasy of Bridgerton isn’t the romance or games of dress-up. It’s the idyllic closeness of the Bridgertons themselves, who support each other without question and seem to live in a permanent spring. (Every building in this version of London is perpetually draped in Technicolor flowers.) In the closest they ever get to a fight, Daphne accuses her mother of negligence: “You taught me how to play pretend, but nothing of the realities of married life.” But that’s Daphne’s problem, not Bridgerton’s, where pretend over reality is exactly the point.