*This review contains discussion of adult themes*
For weeks I have been raving about Bridgerton to anyone who'll listen. Now the review embargo has lifted and I can finally rave in public – and so rave about it I shall. Because Bridgerton is so good! It's so much fun! I love it wholly and unapologetically! It cheered me right up at a generally awful time, and it will cheer you up too!
Bridgerton is basically a cross between Gossip Girl and Jane Austen. The show takes us back to a slightly-fantasy version of Regency London, where a flock of upper-class young women are just about to make their debut on the "marriage mart"; but this season, a mysterious figure called "Lady Whistledown" (whose words are narrated by Julie Andrews) has started publishing a gossipy news pamphlet giving the lowdown about what's going on in high society.
While the show has a huge ensemble cast and plenty of hefty sub-plots, the main thread follows Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor, daughter of Corrie's Sally Dynevor). She is the eldest daughter of the wealthy, respectable Bridgerton family, and the pressure is on for her to find a husband. She's looking for true love, but she's also well aware of the need to find a socially 'suitable' match.
Initially our lovely heroine's prospects seem very promising indeed, especially when the gossip-obsessed Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) declares her a "diamond of the first water". (That's a very good compliment, apparently.) However, after Lady Whistledown casts aspersions on her in her scandal sheet, and after a clumsy intervention by her older brother Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), things begin to go badly wrong.
Enter Simon Bassett, the newly-minted Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page). Though he's a committed bachelor, he immediately becomes the most desirable match in Regency London. He and Daphne bump into each other, and, as Netflix puts it, "despite proclaiming that they want nothing the other has to offer, their attraction is undeniable and sparks fly as they find themselves engaged in an increasing battle of wits while navigating society’s expectations for their future."
We won't say any more than that for fear of giving away spoilers, although readers of Julia Quinn's bestselling series of novels – upon which this show is based – will know more of what's to come. But honestly, Daphne and Simon's story is utterly absorbing and full of surprises.
Daphne's not the only one going through some personal drama. Another standout star of Bridgerton is Derry Girls actress Nicola Coughlan, who plays Penelope Featherington – daughter of pushy mother Lady Portia (Polly Walker) and hands-off father Lord Featherington (Ben Miller). But while Penelope has been forced out into the marriage market alongside her two irritating elder sisters, she is shy and intelligent and "would prefer to quietly sway near the perimeter of any ballroom rather than take centre stage.”
Showrunner Chris Van Dusen and producer Shonda Rhimes (whose company Shondaland made this show) have clearly set things up for a potential second season, and they also had plenty of material to work with from the books when it came to building the world of Bridgerton. And so we have quite a collection of characters whose stories are built deftly around the main plot.
We've got eldest Bridgerton son Anthony, trying to step up as the Viscount after the death of his father, and trapped in his own way by patriarchal society. Then there's Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), who will follow her sister Daphne onto the marriage market some day soon – despite her view of marriage as a cruel trap for women, and her hopeless ambition to go to university. Oh, Eloise, you were born in the wrong century!
And then there's Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), oblivious and earnest; and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), attempting to set her honorary godson Simon straight; and a ton more brilliant characters, who you can read about in our guide to the Bridgerton cast.
The casting, by the way, is genius. Despite the fact that Bridgerton is set in the early 19th century, racial diversity has been built into the show's foundations, without much explanation. And none is really needed! As Nicola Coughlan recently tweeted, "If you’re seeing Bridgerton and thinking it’s anachronistic because it’s brilliantly diverse and in glorious technicolour - you are correct. We are serving you *Fantasy* Regency London. Bright, Bold, & Beautiful."
A few episodes in, an in-world explanation for that diversity does actually emerge – but it's only mentioned once or twice. Basically, the show has taken a historical theory – that King George III's wife Queen Charlotte maybe had a Black ancestor – and run with it, making the King's wife a black woman. That interracial royal marriage seems to have changed everything; the Queen has used her position to elevate the status of ethnic minorities within society, and now even the aristocracy is racially diverse.
Part of me wants to know more about the incredibly rapid social shifts which must have taken place in the few decades immediately before Bridgerton... but most of me is content to accept this explanation and just roll with it. It is, after all, a "fantasy Regency London" – and Bridgerton is not the kind of show to be taken super-seriously (so please let's avoid another fit of fury about Netflix's "errors" and "historical inaccuracies" and "fiction warnings", a la The Crown).
And another thing I love about Bridgerton: the way it approaches sex and self-pleasure!
Here are some words I expect it will be called: period romp, saucy, explicit, steamy. Bridgerton is all of those things and more. To anyone planning to watch this over Christmas with their mum, do please be extremely aware that there are some very sexy sex scenes in this drama, and plan your viewing accordingly. (The first few episodes are pretty safe and then... well, it escalates.)
But the sex scenes – and the discussions of sex – are handled impressively well. When the story begins, most of our young female Bridgertons and Featheringtons have absolutely no idea what sex even is, or how babies are made, or even about the concept of – gasp – self-pleasure and masturbation. It's all a big mystery! Until it isn't. And I don't want to ruin any of the plot points so I'll say no more, but I was impressed with the show's frankness about sexual desire and discovery.
Finally, I just want to say that Bridgerton looks amazing. It is a visual treat. The costumes are sumptuous, the locations are stunning, and the whole thing is full of bright colours. It's not enough to persuade me I'd want to live in this fantasy Regency London (Eloise has a lot of valid points), but an eight-hour visit via Netflix is absolutely perfect.
Bridgerton is available to stream on Netflix from 25th December. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.