Review: Netflix's magnificent 'Bridgerton' glitters with period drama glory

Kelly Lawler
USA TODAY

There is something so tantalizingly alluring about the world of "Bridgerton."

A ball every night, promenades in beautiful meadows, stolen glances in a moonlit garden – the upper classes of Regency-era England lived in a pretty, proper and privileged world. That melodramatic life of leisure, empire waistlines and the "marriage market" is brought to the screen with exquisite detail in Netflix's resplendent new drama (streaming Friday, ★★★½ out of four). 

A bodice ripper taken seriously by its writers and stars, "Bridgerton" is a marvelous first entry in power producer Shonda Rhimes' Netflix deal. Created by Chris Van Dusen, who wrote for Rhimes' "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal," "Bridgerton" has the Rhimes sensibility with a unique historical flavor. There are pretty and diverse people, intense relationship dramas and a high-stakes setting as a backdrop. But "Bridgerton" has more romance, more rumor, and more nudity than a "Grey's Anatomy" or "Scandal." 

Regé-Jean Page as the Duke of Hastings and Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton.

Based on Julia Quinn's romance novels, the series focuses on the Bridgerton family – rich, respected and known for their beautiful brood of nine children – and the lords and ladies of the upper class surrounding them in 1813 London society during the "social season." There's Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter who's recently "come out" as a marriageable debutante; her elder brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), the over-protective head of the family; her bookish younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie); and their mother Violet (Ruth Gemmell), desperately trying to secure futures for her children.

On the other end of the society spectrum is the Featherington family, the trashiest, gaudiest members of the upper class, with a scheming matriarch, Portia (Polly Walker); an overlooked youngest daughter, Penelope (Nicola Coughlan); and a gorgeous but mysterious distant cousin staying in the house, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker). 

Polly Walker as Portia Featherington, Ruby Barker as Marina Thompson and Kathryn Drysdale as Genevieve in "Bridgertron."

The balls and luncheons are watched over by the seemingly all-knowing "Lady Whistledown," author of 1813's version of the "Gossip Girl" blog, who creates scandal and success in her gossip pamphlet. (The anonymous writer is delectably voiced by Julie Andrews).

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Daphne is the series' ingenue, a naîve woman who receives a crash course in politics, sex and love as she hunts for a husband. She would be a great match for the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), if he wasn't so adamantly opposed to taking a wife. The two strike a pact to pretend they're in courtship so she'll draw the eyes of rich men jealous of her powerful suitor and Simon can politely ignore his would-be brides. It's the perfect plan – if they don't fall for each other in the process. 

The series spends much of its first few episodes, out of an eight-installment season, focused on the charming Daphne and Simon. But "Bridgerton" realizes its full potential after the characters around the faux couple are more richly drawn. Developing Penelope's and Marina's storylines rounds out the series and raises its ambition. Like other soapy Rhimes series, "Bridgerton" burns through the plot at a remarkable rate, but the writers manufacture enough twists and turns to prove it worthy of a long, soapy run. 

Rhimes famously ended her longtime contract with ABC for a rich deal at Netflix, and the streamer's deep pockets are fully on display in "Bridgerton." The costumes and sets are luscious and eye-catching (if sometimes garish). History buffs may cry anachronism at some of the costume choices, but different cuts of dresses and color choices brilliantly illuminate the status and personality of their characters.

Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington and Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton in Netflix's "Bridgerton."

To some, "Bridgerton" might seem like a combination of "Pride and Prejudice" and "Gossip Girl": An unseen gossipmonger plays loose with the lives of well-to-do young socialites in 19th-century London. But dismissing a story set in upper-class England as an Austen copycat is reductive. As formidable and beloved a writer as she was, Austen never penned anything so unabashedly sexy, so deliciously melodramatic and with so many orchestral versions of pop songs (try to pick out the Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift hits).

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Romance novels are likewise often dismissed in discussions of pop culture, seen as frivolous, soapy and somehow lesser, in part because of their largely female audience. But "Bridgerton" is an expensive, glossy manifesto for the weightiness of the genre, a story that deals with love, class, race and a host of other topics while expertly landing every choreographed ballroom dance. Plenty of "serious" TV series are markedly less successful in building a world and crafting characters. 

Like the pretty ladies outfitted in sequins and silk, there is far more to "Bridgerton" than meets the eye.