Netflix’s big Christmas gift to us is “Bridgerton,” and all eight episodes of the costume soap opera start streaming on Friday.
Certainly, it’s a beautifully wrapped present. Set in the early 19th century, it’s a fantasy of opulent sets and dazzling outfits worn by gorgeous people.
But when you open the package and check out what’s inside, it’s sort of disappointing. Oh, it’s fun for a while. But it’s like one of those toys that kids play with and then cast aside in favor of something more interesting.
Adapted from Julia Quinn’s best-selling romance novels, “Bridgerton” is set in 1813 and focuses on England’s idle rich of the era. At the center of the narrative is Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter of a noble family. A kind word from the queen makes Daphne a target of the social media of the day — a self-published gossip rag written by the anonymous Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julia Andrews, who narrates the series).
Yes, this is 19th-century “Gossip Girl.”
Daphne’s mother, Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell), is determined to make a good match for her daughter — not just an acceptable man, but a man Daphne can love. But Daphne’s older brother, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), keeps getting in the way of any and all suitors, who he deems unworthy of his sister.
Enter Anthony’s good friend Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the arrogant, seemingly tortured, newly minted Duke of Hastings. Simon and Daphne annoy each other greatly, but cook up a plot. Simon doesn’t want to get married to anybody, so he’ll pretend he’s entranced by Daphne to scare off the mothers of all the eligible young women in London trying to make a match. Daphne’s marriage stock is down — what with Lady Whistledown’s rumor-mongering — so the belief that the Duke of Hastings is interested in her will make her more desirable in the eyes of other men.
If you think you’ve figured out where this is going, you probably have. There are plenty of side trips and detours — many involving the oddly comedic Featheringtons, the noble family next door — but there’s a certain momentum that carries the story forth.
This comes to us from TV uberproducer Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away with Murder” and more. Chris Van Dusen, who’s been a writer/producer on Rhimes’ shows since 2007, is the creator/showrunner of “Bridgerton” — she gave him the book and told him to go create the series. And Van Dusen struggles to maintain a consistent tone because, perhaps, he’s not quite sure what he wants the show to be. A romance? A mystery? A thriller? Sheer fluff? Some kind of social commentary?
The casting on “Bridgerton” is ethnically diverse, in a “Hamilton” kind of way. White, Black, Asian and Hispanic actors were cast as characters without any apparent thought to the fact that this is supposed to be British nobility in 1813. The queen herself is played by a Black actress (Golda Rosheuvel), but the show just kind of goes with it and it works.
Until, that is, there’s an unsatisfying attempt to explain the mix of ethnicities midway through the season by creating an alternate history — and that opens some gaping plot holes and ties an anchor to the narrative.
If you disengage your brain and just sit back and watch, “Bridgerton” provides an escape into a different world where glamorous people lead privileged lives troubled by mostly trivial matters. (Although there’s a strong stream of feminism in the series.) If you think about it too much, “Bridgerton” collapses.
Be warned — although Netflix is releasing this on Christmas, this is not a show for the entire family. There are sex scenes and partial nudity beginning with the first episode, and they ramp up considerably in later episodes.
On the other hand
Sure, just as I write a column complaining that I was sort of bored by Season 2 of “The Mandalorian,” the Disney+ series airs its most exciting episode yet.
No spoilers here (even though it’s been streaming for a week), but the Season 2 finale was hugely entertaining.
But … the made-for-fans Really Big Reveal is deus ex machina to the max. This is an action/adventure extravaganza — and, boy, was there a lot of action in that episode! — but plot takes a back seat. Which is fine, because, again, it’s just so darn much fun.
It’s true that each episode of “The Mandalorian” is like a minimovie. Just don’t repeat my error by binging five episodes in a row. Better to savor it one episode at a time.