Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ Swoons With Light Passion and Shallow Scandal

If you are staying safe at home this winter season and miss costume dramas where desire matters more than history, Netflix is here with “Bridgerton.” It brings to life the novels of Julia Quinn, which provide quick-consumption, mass market paperback escapism into a 19th century world of wigs and swooning fair maidens. It plays it just safe enough, never skirting beyond what would be a soft PG-13 rating for a movie. Made for the truly devoted, where the show doesn’t tone it down is in the aristocratic chatter about what family should marry into which other one. You wish at times there would be more steam to the pretty faces.

Creator Chris Van Dusen has produced shows with titles that feel taken out of “Bridgerton” dialogue like “Scandal” and “The Catch,” while also helming other notables like “Grey’s Anatomy.” Shot with the same kind of clean look as those shows, this one takes place in 1813 Bath during the Regency period (for you Anglophiles out there). It is a period of royals in wigs and men in vests and coats. Great families must outdo each other to be, well, great. The Bridgerton clan is squaring off with the Featherington to win favor from Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who always maintains a stern stare. Brace yourself for a symphony of titles. Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) is most embarrassed when her daughter Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), passes out in the presence of her majesty. Victory then seems snatched by Dowager Countess Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), whose jewel of an offspring, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), does seem to win favor. It’s also confirmed by the local gossip pamphlet, Lady Whistledown. This instantly makes Daphne the most sought after would-be proper wife by all the status hunters of the land. But protecting her is older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who keeps suitors at bay. Scandal threatens her chances until a dashing, determined bachelor, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), befriends and helps her with a charade that may lead to their own, growing attraction.

And so “Bridgerton” gallops into what amounts to a rather chatty affair where more is said than done. Such is the cast at least for the first few episodes. It’s a handsomely mounted production, with a look that crosses YA color schemes with Masterpiece Theater settings. Van Dusen has tailor-made “Bridgerton” for viewers who will drink in the sights and generic violin music. Instead of heated passion what we get is a dry narrative about a typically innocent girl (Daphne) trying to make herself desirable by conspiring with the Duke of Hastings, will obviously grow closer to her in a hormonal way. The individual storylines are also stretched out to forever, whether it’s the reasons for why the Duke refuses to marry as to what role the Queen plays in all this. Page gets a few worthy, melodramatic moments, as when he whispers to his dying father that he’s a monster, and so the son will cut the bloodline. 

Where the show does work best is in its Victorian clichés when it comes to the humor. Daphne’s suitors are an assortment of scoundrel rich men and older, desperate souls who demand to marry her because, hey, she’s a woman and has little choice. Of course readers of the novel know that later Daphne will be wed and it leads to a controversial moment in the books (and now the show) where the story touches on sexual assault, in this case involving a woman on a man that raises very intense questions. It’s one moment where “Bridgerton” at least challenges the audience a bit more than with the usual fluff that dominates the rest of the series. But this kind of moment is nestled between scenes that can just slog unless you really are into dialogue in the style of, “her fate is to become a spinster!” 

Take a trip into “Bridgerton” if your fix is in light gossip and colorful coats, or if you enjoy indulging in the kind of scandalous developments like the maid being impregnated by a selfish lord, who then can’t believe the offspring has a stutter. And all this in just the first three episodes! But if sweaty torsos and bloody acts is what hits the spot, this one is a tame romp through old England. It must be said the performances have energy and the cast is well-selected. They have the faces suited for grand adventures and dangerous liaisons. Yet the show lacks that necessary vigor and even the richness of language. But for its intended audience that might just be what they’re looking for.

Bridgerton” season one begins streaming Dec. 25 on Netflix.