Tuesday, February 16, 2021

“Bridgerton”: Enticing Anachronisms and Angst

Somewhere out there, Jane Austen is surely giggling. Bridgerton, a TV dramatic miniseries that is both mesmerizing and completely cuckoo, is giving England’s Regency period (circa 1813) an entirely new look. True, Miss Austen had previously inspired stacks of so-called “Regency Romances” (featuring frocks that look like nightgowns, and lots of steamy sex), but those insipid novels are easily overlooked. Bridgerton, though, commands attention, because of its sumptuous attention to detail, its gorgeous leading man and lady, and the acid tongue of (yes!) Julie Andrews as the never-seen scandalmonger, Lady Whistledown.

 Some of Bridgerton’s historical anachronisms are clearly deliberate. Most obvious (and, I’m sure, most pleasing to series producer Shonda Rimes) is the fact that these Britishers live in a colorblind society in which Black characters belong to the nobility as well as the servant class, with no one batting an eye at the horrors of interracial mixing. I’m told the color palette of the series’ Regency costumes has been tweaked for effect: it’s hard to imagine a real-life dowager, like the ambitious Baroness Featherington, pairing a bright green gown with fuchsia gloves. I’m also skeptical about the Duke of Hastings’ very 21st-century stubble-beard look. Then there are the women’s towering hairstyles, worn mostly by unappealing characters, that I suspect are intended to amuse, not to convince. (And did louche types really smoke cigarettes in 1813?)

 Of course in an entertainment like this one, everyone has sex on the brain. It’s surely historically accurate to say that in Regency England proper young ladies were kept ignorant of the facts of life. (One young man scoffs to his mystified sister, “Haven’t you ever been to a farm?”) But of course part of the fun of dramas like this one is to show our modern attitudes intruding upon period conventions. So the spirited but innocent Daphne Bridgerton is encouraged by her future husband to explore masturbation, with stunning success. (This at the same time that an unchaperoned walk between a young lady and gentleman might be cause for a duel.) And of course the machinations to marry off a secretly pregnant young woman become moot when modern-style tolerance enters the picture.

 No question: this series was created with a female audience in mind. True, Daphne (played by Phoebe Dynevor) is lovely, in an ethereal way. She has a willowy form that empire gowns can only enhance, plus a face with a knack for looking tremulous, either in moments of bliss or sorrow. But I suspect most viewers particularly cotton to the macho charms of Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, the angst-y but noble Duke of Hastings. Once these two discover the joys of married life, the camera can’t get enough of his shirt-sheddings and drawer-droppings. Of course his moral scruples about their future life together make very little sense in context, nor does her sudden discovery of what’s lacking from the connubial gyrations that take place in seemingly every nooks and cranny of the family estate. (I’m no prude, but I’m still scratching my head over what leads her to figure out—in a flash—what he’s been withholding all this time.)

 Obviously, plotting is not Bridgerton’s strong suit. Miss Marina Thompson’s scandalous pregnancy remains invisible (even in those diaphanous gowns) for what seems many months, while other events fly by in a flash. A big reveal in the final episode, one that settles what has been a major question from the start, makes absolutely no sense. Which leads me to wonder about season 2. Now that the leading characters are finally happy, what else is there to amuse us?



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