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Bridgerton review: Shondaland made the ultimate Austen romance riff

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Jane Austen’s 19th-century prose became synonymous with Regency romances through the subtle art of eroticism. Bridgerton, from Shonda Rhimes’ Shondaland, the studio behind Grey’s Anatomy, also has its fair share of yearning glances and soft hand-holding. The difference is that it’s incredibly horny. Based on the modern books of the same name by author Julia Quinn, the Netflix series pulls from the tropes of classic novels (hand flexes! dances!) with saucier turns from the current romance genre.

Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen clearly knows the truth: Romance tropes are good. Romance novels are good! And a great romance novel knows the appeal of a bodice ripper. Bridgerton revels in romance tropes, managing to expertly pull them all off in a sizzling, satisfying way.

[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for Bridgerton]

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Bridgerton follows a large family of the same name, as eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) enters the London season, determined to strike out a good match. The colorful characters of high society include smoldering-yet-aloof Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page); the oldest Bridgerton brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who keeps his opera singer mistress a secret from his family; younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who hates the idea of having to shell herself out for marriage; the bumbling Featherington family who lack the grace of the Bridgertons but have a mama (Polly Walker) shrewd enough to make up for it; Miss Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), a farm girl swept into the big city who must marry well or risk exposing a big secret; and watching it all, the mysterious Lady Whistledown (voiced by the one and only Julie Andrews), the author of a popular gossip pamphlet whose word can make or break someone’s reputation. Lady Whistledown is Regency London’s Gossip Girl, her lilting voice narrating scandalous reveals that have the characters huddling over after every issue.

The show juggles many different characters as it navigates the dynamic players of London high society, but a strong couple at its center keeps it propped up. Daphne and Simon, Duke of Hastings, are not a main couple that immediately locks eyes and starts swooning, though the electricity is there from the beginning. Even when they do get together, the romance only gets more and more delicious.

Every time an episode builds to a classic romance trope, it introduces another as a twist. Daphne and Simon seem locked in a tense battle of the wits, rivals-to-lovers in tribute to Elizabeth and Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, but that’s just the first episode. They realize they have something to gain from each other and enter into a fabricated relationship, turning the trope into a riff on fake dating. It only ramps up from there: Brace for yearning missed glances across crowded rooms, jealous pining, and scandalous kisses in the garden!

Regé-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings

Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix

Dynevor and Page’s intense chemistry keeps the saucy drama of Bridgerton from feeling forced. Their characters’ relationship grows from acquaintances into believable friends so that by the time the inevitable romance does factor in (and this is not a show that drags it out for a last-minute love confession in the penultimate moment) it feels believable. Daphne and the Duke’s romance doesn’t end with a love confession in the rain, a triumphant kiss, or a wedding. In fact, a good deal of the show interrogates what happens after marriage. Whereas most Regency romance novels taper off after the vows, Bridgerton dives into post-married life and the complications that arise.

Van Dusen threads the trials and tribulations of 19th-century marriage throughout the show. The idea of striking a good match is something that any Jane Austen fan knows, but Bridgerton really emphasizes how necessary this was in the early 1800s. The single female characters all take different approaches to marriage: Daphne hopes for a love match, while her sister Eloise demands to know why she can’t make something of herself without a husband; Marina, a poor country girl, needs to marry well, lest a secret she harbors becomes exposed; opera singer Siena (Sabrina Bartlett) and seamstress Madame Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale), however, working-class women who’ve made their way in the world, cheer that they don’t need the limitations of marriage. The married characters also offer different views on their lives post vows, stretching the gamut of still in love after all these years to pairing that ruined both parties forevermore. It sets up the stakes for the single characters: they know they must play this game carefully to secure love, security, or whatever else their end goal may be.

Bridgerton offers a nuanced view on marriage in Regency society without sacrificing the romance. It is a spicy romp, full of stolen kisses and sweeping ball gowns, one that understands the appeal of well-worn tropes and compounds them in a way that only escalates and rarely grows messy. Viva la romance genre! Bridgerton shows the magic that can happen when those tropes are played right.

All eight episodes of Bridgerton premiere on Netflix on Dec. 25.

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