'Bridgerton' review: The scandalous and sexy romantic fantasy lives up to the hype

Plus, the color-blind casting comes as a welcome surprise.

January 08, 2021, 4:01 AM

According to Netflix projections, 63 million households are having a binge blast watching all eight episodes of "Bridgerton." The series also nabbed the top spot on the streamer's top 10 ranking in 76 countries. And why not? You won't find a sexier, more scandalous or sumptuous-looking romantic fantasy to take your mind off the latest COVID-19 surge. So jump back in time to London in the early 19th-century when lovers swanned around from ball to ball in opulent costumes with buttons and hooks that barely slowed down their leap into bed.

Sure, it sounds familiar. British costume dramas are hardly a new thing. It's the color-blind casting in "Bridgerton" that comes as a welcome surprise in a genre usually reserved for white actors. That daring is a hallmark of Shonda Rhimes, the TV hit-maker ("Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal") who offers "Bridgerton" as the first entry in her reported $150 million deal to bring Shondaland content to Netflix. Race is rarely mentioned in "Bridgerton," as the white Bridgerton family seeks to marry off their debutante daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) to Simon Bassett (Rege-Jean Page), the Black and impossibly beautiful Duke of Hastings.

PHOTO: A scene from "Bridgerton."
A scene from "Bridgerton."
Liam Daniel/Netflix

To Rhimes and showrunner Chris Van Dusen, who carved the series out the romance novels of of Julia Quinn, the point was to cast Black actors in roles written as white. Providing a diverse version of a world that traditionally excluded people of color is no small thing. What a kick to see Queen Charlotte, the mixed-race wife of the mad King George III, represented by Black actress Golda Rosheuvel.

A subversive streak is rare in a romp set amidst the lavish trappings of the Regency era, when wealthy white families concentrated on marrying off their darling daughters. Chronicling all these doings for her newsletter is Lady Whistledown (voiced by the legendary Julie Andrews) who serves as kind of throwback "Gossip Girl." Even though she is heard but never seen, Andrews is delicious. So is the series.

PHOTO: Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor in a scene from "Bridgerton."
Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor in a scene from "Bridgerton."
Liam Daniel/Netflix

Daphne scores a big hit when presented at court. "Flawless," proclaims Queen Charlotte. It's too bad that Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), Daphne's overprotective brother, drives away all suitors. And it's a shame for the nearby Featherington family that their less flawless belles find their light dimmed by the arrival of a distant cousin, Marina (Ruby Barker), whose glamor even puts Daphne in the shade. That Marina is Black and the other debs are not matters less than the fact that Marina is hiding a pregnancy that becomes increasingly difficult to conceal from Lady Whistledown, whoever she really is. Don't worry, you'll find out before the last episode.

The first season of "Bridgerton" -- its popularity pretty much guarantees a second go-round -- revolves around Daphne and the Duke, whose seething dislike for each other masks a burning attraction. Doesn't it always? The two have made an agreement to be pretend lovers, so Daphne won't be seen as a loser and the commitment-fearing Duke won't be pestered by marriage-hungry females. Dynevor and Page do the love-hate dance in high style, though the camera understandably treats the British-Zimbabwean actor as its true object of desire. Whatever defines a star, Page is it. You're sure to swoon. Even Lady Whistledown is impressed. For all the racial inroads made by this ambitious if admittedly up-and-down series, "Bridgerton" comes down to a boy and girl in love. Sometimes it really is that simple.

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