Sometimes a television series can’t decide what it wants to be when it grows up — or whether it wants to grow up at all. Case in point: Bridgerton, now on Netflix. One knows from the previews that it will be awful, but curiosity lures — just how awful? With its ballroom gowns and handsomely clad gentlemen, Bridgerton is superficially tailored for the sort of viewer who likes that sort of thing, and the Regency-era setting in Bath evokes pleasant memories of Jane Austen and classic productions of Persuasion.
The eponymous fatherless family is opulently wealthy, and the story centers around eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), whose burden it is to get the family off to a good start in the aristocratic marital sweepstakes through which fortunes are merged and social statuses rise. When being presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), she makes a stellar impression and is off to a running start. Her older brother, however, blocks each potential match, since he knows the dirty secrets of every interested bachelor through his network of clubbable young gentlemen. A scheme is thus concocted between her and Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). Simon wishes, for dark family reasons, never to marry, and she wishes to marry well. They will feign an attachment to keep designing women away from him and to increase Daphne’s desirability with other men.
Early on, we realize the production is using color-blind casting. Lords and ladies, footmen and serving girls — all are of a mixture of races that would “look like England” today. The viewer can adjust, though, grasping that this is an imaginary world, like a Shakespeare play or an opera. As a college student back in the dark ages of the 1980s, one of the first operas I attended had Simon Estes playing the lead in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, and I don’t recall anyone in the lily-white audience batting an eye that the magnificent African-American baritone didn’t look much like a Dutchman — flying or not. So, while Bridgerton doesn’t look like a traditional British period drama, as long as the story is sufficiently Shakespearean or Wagnerian, all will be well. And indeed, since none of the characters give so much as a whiff of noticing or commenting on race in the early episodes, the signal is clear that these are just casting choices.
Several episodes in, however, it is sprung on us in a dialogue between Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and the young duke (both of whom are black) that everyone is actually highly conscious of race while feigning not to be — viewers have to make yet another adjustment, since we are apparently now in an alternative history of the UK, in which King George III married Charlotte, a black princess from the royal family of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany (long story, drawing on crackpot 20th-century theories — just go with it).
Anyway, King George marrying a black queen caused the English, in this parallel Netflix timeline, to overflow with such love for darker-skinned Englanders that they started handing them lavish dukedoms and the like — while apparently still being hidden racists. Alternative histories are fun, but only when they are somewhat plausible. The black population of the UK during the Regency period was around 0.1 percent, so extraordinary leaps are required. We aren’t told just how it was decided which blacks got to be pampered dukes and which got to be servants, and why millions of deplorable Anglo-Saxons who had been left out of the Norman nobility racket since 1066 didn’t seem to mind. There are the makings of interesting political metaphors, but they go unexploited.
Even this, as well as the anachronistic music and the anachronistic cigarettes, might be forgiven — this is television after all — if Bridgerton were a good story. But the whole “will Daphne and Simon really fall in love?” act is mildly engaging for only about half an episode. The show uses steamy sex to distract from its myriad deficiencies, to be sure, but what one really can’t get past is the clumsy way modern sensibilities are tacked onto late-18th-century characters. They observe proprieties and complex rules of behavior that governed life at the time, but one always gets the vague feeling that they are winking at us: “We are actually actors who live in 21st-century London, and don’t believe a word of it.”
What makes period dramas compelling to the modern viewer is the chance to see familiar matters of the heart played out in convincing settings with different social conventions. And in that regard, Bridgerton is a confused, visionless mess that doesn’t made the grade. Traditional period drama, imaginary world, alternative history, all in just the first four episodes? I’m not sticking around as the producers try to decide what this bit of nonsense should be when it grows up.