During the release of Bridgerton season one, I paid it no mind. Aristocratic period dramas are fairly low on my list of what types of fiction seem worthwhile today. When I finally did watch it, I was fully expecting to watch the two seasons currently released. I found myself, within a few episodes, with little reason to watch the show in full. Its insistence on pure plot, be they romances or scandals, left me feeling predictably cold. I couldn’t see any reason to continue after season one, because anything of note I had to say about it could be taken from the pilot alone. Whilst the series is heavily riffing on the writings of Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice was published the year the series is set, 1813 – it’s based on a series of novels by American writer Julia Quinn released between 2000 and 2006. In 2020, showrunner Chris Van Dusen called the show “pure escapism”, yet strangely also added “I wanted to take everything I loved about a period show and turn it into something fresh, topical and relatable”. From its inception to its production, this series is so far removed from the time and place it’s set in that it is almost beyond historical critique.
In terms of plot, which is all Bridgerton has to offer, there is nothing that wasn’t originally explored, with infinitely more wit and originality, in Austen’s writing. It’s a mostly standard and familiar representation of the ton, the high society of Regency-era London. How far will Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) go with their ruse to attract her some better suitors? Who will Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker) choose to raise her child, conceived out of wedlock? Will Miss Featherbottom betroth herself to the dashing Mr Greenpasture, or the honourable Lord Boggsworth? Certain scripts, like Sarah Dollard’s “Swish”, give a deeper insight into the characters and their dynamics but those moments are few and far between. Almost every aspect of the series is written with such mechanical dissociation, it’s as if the entire genre had been fed into an AI, programed to give an 8-episode streaming series as its output.
There’s more effort put into the period sets and costumes than giving any semblance of texture or realism to the setting. In 1804, for example, the British East India Company – a British corporation which ruled over parts of India with its own private army – was embroiled in the second year of a war with the indigenous Maratha Empire. Imperialist violence was inextricably linked to the gentry and nobility of the London that’s so vital to this series. There are even scant references to wars and colonies in the show itself. The most noteworthy thing about the year 1804 in Bridgerton, however, is when “Miss Mary Leopold secured a betrothal over a plate of sugared almonds and liquorice in just four-and-a-half minutes.” But don’t ask where that sugar came from. The show is, bizarrely, more interested in giving us a violin cover of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy”.
Which is the biggest fault of Bridgerton’s attempt at historical writing. It is self-consciously uninterested in history. This is not a disapproval of the show’s racial diversity which, whilst it has garnered criticism for fetishizing black men, is an example of representation in escapist fiction. Salamishah Tillet wrote that Bridgerton “provides a blueprint for British period shows in which Black characters can thrive”. This is true, but should we treat stories about Viscounts and Dukes in this way at all? My criticism lies in that history should never be treated as escapism. When we defang the past, we destroy our potential to learn about it and from it. To romanticise history when the realities of it still impact the present is to do a disservice to all the people harmed by it, no matter how insistent the show is on “escapism”. There is rarely a crime or horror occurring in the world today that does not have an equivocal allegory, or even a causation, to be found in the past.
Whilst it made Bridgerton even more inaccessible as historical writing, I was content to take this approach in stride. A racially diverse cast in a Pride and Prejudice-adjacent setting felt new and different. Despite my own (very conceited) misgivings, it’s still valuable and meaningful representation on-screen. It isn’t until halfway through season one that the point of race is even made – the Duke is aware that their nobility is founded only on the King, a white man who is potentially George III (the mental one), marrying a black woman, the Queen, at some point in the recent past. This, somehow, allowed all people of colour to ascend into the British nobility, but with the caveat that their new-found status is on somewhat shaky ground. Should this union disintegrate, these new nobles could find their positions ‘up for debate’.
Bridgerton is consciously more alternate history than real history. Whether a show Netflix describes as “swoonworthy” would ever realistically deign to explore that idea is also up for debate; back in the real 1813, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was signed by King George III only four years prior, and it would be a number of decades yet until its enforcement across the Empire. Looking at the present, think of how Meghan Markle has been treated by the press and her own family in response to her marriage to Prince Harry. A race-blind society, even at the upper echelons of aristocracy and landed gentry, remains laughable in 2022. I’m struggling to see how it would’ve succeeded in 1813. Perhaps I live too relentlessly in the real world for Bridgerton to make its intended impact, but writing escapism set in a period in which only a small portion of the audience would realistically be able to ‘escape’ from anything seems like, at best, a fool’s errand.
Bridgerton also involves a C-plot in which one of the Bridgerton sons meets a character in the vein of Oscar Wilde, who holds nights of painting and debauchery. He’s involved in a homosexual relationship, his marriage all for appearances, his real lifestyle a closely-guarded secret. Multiple female characters speak about the freedoms and allowances afforded only to men in their sect of society. It seems strange that certain other holdovers from the setting have been retained, albeit in mostly bland ways, yet the nobility’s relationship with race is all but disregarded. It feels as though this beat is an addition to a show which decided, somewhere late in pre-production, that a series about the real ton wouldn’t be too popular nowadays. And rightly so.
Brigderton’s is a genre that goes beyond escapism and amounts to little more than wish fulfilment. It allows an audience to abscond into a life of ballrooms and tea parties, where society’s rules and customs enforce engagement and romance above all else. In a world of dating apps, hook-ups, and constant discourse about toxic relationships, making a show like Bridgerton is guaranteed to get people talking – or “swooning”. But it’s a stomach-churning type of wish fulfilment in which that lifestyle is constant, immovable, and wholly earned.
There’s no way Netflix or Van Dusen would’ve allowed this show to explore the realities of its setting. This life of stability and privilege was predicated only on the nobility stealing from almost everyone else in the world. These characters’ ability to live such lavish and sheltered lives, where courtship and marriage take up an explicitly-noted part of the calendar year, is founded on the British Empire’s ruthless enforcement of its own class system and its imperial theft of wealth (and people) from an expanse of lands so big that the sun was always shining on part of it. The Duke and Duchess may wish to be benevolent rulers, but they are blood-drinking aristocracy all the same. What’s most strange is that it wasn’t until recently that mainstream discussion of these topics was really undertaken – Brigderton is more a product of our own time than it is of Jane Austen’s. That does make it, in a roundabout way, historical writing. I just doubt history will look back on it with similar approval.