If the Covid era has robbed us of many pleasures, it has at least provided some opportunity for wildly escapist television drama.
The latest to capture our attention is "Bridgerton," a sly and sexy Netflix Inc. series set in Georgian England in 1813. At a time when Europe and the US feel like distant cousins, here we have a glorious example of British heritage and American irreverence fruitfully colliding to make riveting TV.
Launched on Christmas Day, just as it was becoming clear that the pandemic would make this a very long winter, Bridgerton is a mixture of historical romp, tart commentary on the 18th-century marriage market and an experiment in "color-blind" TV casting. It turns upside down the slave-holding society of the reign of King George III, giving a cast of various ethnicities roles as aristocrats and royalty, rather than relegating them to inferior positions as footmen and maids.
The series is an American-British co-production, the first fruit of a $150 million deal cut by Netflix with US showrunner Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland production company, whose impressive back catalogue includes popular shows "Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice" and "Scandal." In her latest work, as one critic puts it, Rhimes "takes fusty, old British period drama and gives it some swagger." Historical accuracy plays second fiddle to dramatic impact. Not only would the sex make Ms. Austen blush, but here the women take charge and manipulate the men.
The plot is based on a series of romantic novels by American author Julia Quinn. Daphne Bridgerton (played by Phoebe Dynevor) negotiates the "marriage mart" in search of a match. She wants to have it all — love, friendship and a fortune. After some setbacks, she agrees to a fake courtship with the rakish Duke of Hastings Simon Basset, hoping that the interest of one of London's most eligible bachelors will lift her share price as a bride.
It is a clever repurposing of the "Brideshead Revisited" formula, Evelyn Waugh's classic novel about privileged Oxford University and stately home living, which is reliably screened or remade as every new recession bites. Waugh's book was published in 1945 amidst British post-war austerity and rationing. As the author said, "It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster — the period of soya beans and Basic English — and in consequence, the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past."
The 1981 independent television adaptation of Brideshead, shown when unemployment hit the three million mark in the U.K., is widely considered to be one of the best British productions of all time. A film version was also produced after the Great Recession of 2007-2009. And by no Covid coincidence, the BBC and HBO are shooting yet another TV version, this time directed by "Call Me By Your Name" director, Luca Guadagnino.
With conspicuous consumption a bad look nowadays, we're once again drawn to bling and richness. There are close to 7,500 brightly colored costumes in the first season of Bridgerton. And the crunch of gravel leading to magnificent stately homes is the main soundtrack. (The producers appear to have commandeered the elegant city of Bath, where Jane Austen took the waters and penned her wry observations on humankind, for a stage set.) In one room, the glass window fittings alone cost 40,000 pounds ($54,436).
Netflix knows that olde world Britain is big box-office escapism in the US.
The popular series "Downton Abbey" has been gluing eyeballs to the small screen since 2010 with its creaking formula of master-servant, upstairs-downstairs country house life. According to Nielsen, Netflix's US viewers spent more than 16 billion minutes watching British royalty drama, "The Crown," last year, making it the streaming company's third-most popular original series. Within a month of its debut, Netflix estimates that 63 million households have watched Bridgerton, making it the platform's fifth-most watched original series.
What makes Bridgerton stand out even more is its diverse casting, which challenges audience expectations of this hitherto highly conservative genre. It's also a sign of the times that viewers and critics alike have made no complaint. "Downton Abbey" and "Brideshead" were racially homogenous. Gareth Neame, Downton's executive producer, insisted it was necessary for historical accuracy.
In Bridgerton, the handsome, troubled duke is played by Rege-Jean Page, the son of a Zimbabwean mother and an English father. King George III's wife Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz (Golda Rosheuvel) is Black, as is the duke's relative, Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh. These characters make direct reference to their race. At one point Lady Danbury expresses her optimistic belief that love can trump racial difference. The duke is not so sure.
Nicola Coughlan, the actress who plays knowing ingenue Penelope Featherington, puts things in perspective: "On Game of Thrones, you can suspend your belief for dragons, for Bridgerton, you can suspend your belief that we have a Black queen and a Black duke."
An escapist drama it may be, but Bridgerton heralds a sea change in our sensibilities. Yes, in times of crisis, we continue to look to romance and riches for distraction from our cares. But Rhimes has proved that as long as audiences are entertained, they will welcome innovation too.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.