When it was originally on: 2020-present
Original network: Netflix
Where you can stream it now: Netflix
Had I seen it before: Yes! I’ve seen all the episodes of both seasons. It’s one of my great guilty pleasures that frankly, I’m not that guilty about.
What IMDb says: Wealth, lust, and betrayal set against the backdrop of Regency-era England, seen through the eyes of the powerful Bridgerton family.
Why I picked it: Over the last couple years, Netflix hasn’t had the quite the same indisputable top dog status it once did, but Bridgerton is certainly one of the shows to point to as an example of its continued relevance. It also represents somewhat of a departure from Netflix’s originaly strategy. Netflix drama offerings were initially headlined by prestige hits like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, but Bridgerton is an unapologetically cotton candy flavored-crowd pleaser, and shocker, people still like cotton candy. Nowadays, Netflix often seems like it’s trying to be all things to all people, and shows like Bridgerton sometimes make me wonder if it might actually succeed in that impossible task.
As I’ve previously discussed with some of my teen show reviews, I also love dissecting shows like Bridgerton as they’re deceptively difficult to do well, and often when they are done well they go under-appreciated simply because of what they are and who they’re intended for. Plenty of people have done romance stories on television before; what, if anything, did Bridgerton get right that others didn’t?
What I liked: Bridgerton is quite good at making its low stakes feel like high stakes, which is an important quality in your escapist television. Like so many other period romances, Bridgerton is great at reminding us that marriage is about more than just love… but damn it should also be about love too. Daphne’s match (or lack thereof) has a profound affect on the family’s fortune, reputation, and what other matches her younger siblings might be able to make in the future. There’s also natural dramatic tension in a world where courtship is limited to “courting season” and there are such rigid rules for how men and women can interact. Daphne has a hard deadline for finding love, and so does everyone else in the dating pool. These artificial boundaries are enough to create tension, but at the same time I don’t think any of us are legitimately scared that Daphne will still be single at the end of the season. To heighten things even further, we also have various mothers and other high profile ladies trying to coax characters into different matches. There’s so many opinions beyond Daphne’s that matter.
Bridgerton is smart to enough to recognize that everyone knows Daphne and Simon are going to end up together at some point. You get drama not from denying that, but from arranging the pieces on your chess board so that we can’t help wondering how we’ll get from here to there. Bridgerton introduces both characters, and places several hurdles in their way. Simon is currently insisting that he has no interest in marriage of any kind; Daphne seems to find Simon arrogant and unpleasant; then there’s Daphne’s older brother, Anthony, who is serving as “man of the house” as their father has passed away. Anthony knows Simon from university and it’s heavily implied that these the two enjoyed their sowing-wild-oats phases together. Now, Anthony has made it unequivocally clear that Simon is not good enough for Daphne’s eyes. I can’t help but wonder when and how these hurdles are going to come down, because again, we all know they will.
The Anthony dynamic is actually one of the most intriguing things of the whole pilot. One of my favorite scenes comes when Mrs. Bridgerton confronts Anthony about his duty to find Daphne a good match, as well as him not taking a wife for himself thus far. Anthony tries to assert himself as the “man of the house,” but at at the end of the day… he’s still the son and Mrs. Bridgerton is still the mom, and she’s not about to let him forget it. On a similar note, he’ll never be Daphne’s father no matter how much circumstances demand he pose as one. Anthony is really the only person who has any kind of sophisticated internal struggle at this point: wanting to assert control over Daphne’s courtship in that he wants to reject unfit suitors, but not wanting to take accountability for finding the right suitor. Struggling to know what his role in the family is… but on another level knowing exactly what his role is supposed to be and resenting that it should be his burden at all. This isn’t just regarding his opinions about Daphne’s potential match, but also his own love life and whatever duties he has to marry a woman of a certain social class.
By the end of the pilot, Anthony seemingly has accepted his role as “man of the house” and whatever duties come along with that, and meanwhile Simon and Daphne have started a fake courtship in an attempt to give Simon a reprieve from other suitors and make Daphne more desirable to others now that a duke has given her his stamp of approval. I also love how when Simon proposes this plan, the quote is “it will make both of us look like precisely what we are… me, unavailable, you, desirable.” They sneak in this line that on some level, Simon sincerely considers Daphne desirable. The fake relationship also gives us one more thing to look forward to… what happens when they inevitably have to fake a “breakup.” Which one will be more reluctant to go through with the original plan? Or maybe they will breakup and only later realize they regret it?
That perhaps is the real genius of the Bridgerton pilot; it’s fairly clear about what dominos have to fall down between and the end of the season, and it invites us to imagine what creative ways the writers might go about knocking them over.
What I didn’t like: Daphne is a pretty ho hum protagonist without much going on besides “likability.” That’s far from a dealbreaker though, and maybe even deliberate, since ho hum female protagonist are par for the course in this genre as it allegedly makes it easier for female audiences to see themselves living out whatever fantasy this character has. That said, it did strike me as odd to revisit this episode and realize that Anthony is more of a fully formed character than either Daphne or Simon.
We also have this other B-plot about the Featheringtons, and I must confess that having seen the whole show, one of my least favorite things is when it asks me to care more about the Featheringtons than I do. By the end of the episode we do at least get a sense for what dramatic potential this B-plot has: the cousin who has come to stay in town is unmarried and pregnant, which could possibly make it harder for the Featherington girls to find mates since their virtue has been sullied by proxy I guess. Unfortunately, I do not really care about the whether the Featherington girls find love, and while an illegitimate pregnancy in this universe certainly promises more drama to come, We don’t really get to know Marina as a character prior to this revelation, so it’s hard to feel for her. As of now, this still feels more like a distraction from the plot rather than proper subplot in its own right.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes. Even having already seen it… I could kinda go for a re-watch now.