AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
This episode includes mention of sexual assault.
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HARRIS: What if you took "Gossip Girl" and set it in Regency-era London, where members of the aristocracy plot to find love, sex and spouses? You'd have "Bridgerton." The extremely horny new show was created by Chris Van Dusen, and it's the first project to emerge from Shonda Rhimes' production company, under a lucrative Netflix deal.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The rom-com centers on the eldest daughter of the esteemed Bridgerton family and her quest to land a suitable suitor. But it also details the upper-class exploits of a dizzying array of side characters and features the cheeky narration of none other than Dame Julie Andrews.
I'm Glen Weldon.
HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Bridgerton" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HARRIS: Welcome back. You just met Glen Weldon. Also with us from her home studio is Audie Cornish, the host of All Things Considered and NPR's daily afternoon news podcast Consider This. Hey, Audie.
AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: And also joining us from her home in Brooklyn is Soraya Nadia McDonald, cultural critic for The Undefeated. Welcome back, Soraya. It's great to have you again.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Happy to be here again.
HARRIS: "Bridgerton" is adapted from Julia Quinn's bestselling romance novel series, and it marks the debut of Chris Van Dusen as a creator and showrunner. Shonda Rhimes serves as an exec producer, and it definitely has her DNA all over it. Van Dusen previously worked on several of her hit shows for ABC. And the cast includes really ridiculously good-looking characters talking about or having a lot of sex. It's also imaginative in some of its casting choices, including a Black duke played Rege-Jean Page and a Black Queen Charlotte played by Golda Rosheuvel.
There's so much going on here that it can sometimes be hard to keep track of who's who and who's doing who at any given time. But the too-long-didn't-read summation of Season 1 is - there are eight Bridgerton siblings. The eldest daughter, Daphne, played by Phoebe Dynevor, enters the marriage market of upper-crust London. She stumbles in attracting prospects and hatches a plan with the aforementioned Duke of Hastings, a proud bachelor, to fake a courtship in hopes that jealous suitors will pursue her and he can keep eager ladies at bay.
Chronicling it all in voiceover is a mysterious and seemingly omniscient gossip hound named Lady Whistledown, played by Julie Andrews, who exposes their goings-on in a scintillating recurring newsletter. Whew. That was a lot to say and talk about.
HARRIS: And there is so much going on in this show. But first, let's get y'all's reactions. Glen, what did you think of "Bridgerton"?
WELDON: Well, let's get this out of the way up top. I mean, I feel like the trailer promised me gay stuff. I don't think that's an unreasonable expectation given this is, you know, Shondaland.
WELDON: But for queer listeners out there thinking of checking this out, just know that that one shot in the trailer is pretty much it. But I can't get mad at this because, after all - as you said, Aisha - this is basically "Downton Abbey" with butts. And they are, I'll just say, pleasantly anachronistic butts because the aristocracy of the Regency period I don't think was known for doing a lot of glute bridges - these folks have.
WELDON: This show is a lot swoonier (ph) than "Downton Abbey," but how could it not be? That's a low bar to clear. And for me, these shows, shows about privilege, always have a key phrase that kind of unlocks them, that turns out to be a statement of principle. It's usually expressed in dialogue, and it kind of distills the concept of the show. It's the thing around which everything revolves.
In "The Crown," of course, as we've discussed, it's thank you, which captures the strangled adherence to politesse and, you know, propriety. And with "Downton," as I have said many times on this show and elsewhere, it was - there's a spot of bother with the pudding spoons, which is also about appearances, but it's also about the outward, like, physical manifestations of class.
Here, I think, it's something that gets said by several characters over the course of these eight episodes - I cannot bear it, which is a function of how this show, unlike those, though it shares a lot of similarities with a lot of other shows about privilege, this is a romance. And it centers everything on the emotional lives of these characters, which is a smart thing to do because a classic dig at a show like this and "Downton" and "The Crown" is - why should I care, right? I mean, you didn't seek an invitation to the viscount's exhibition - who cares? Be about something real. So what you do is you turn up the volume on their emotional turmoil. This is the thing that all soap operas know.
So I was largely on board, with a few quibbles. It does help that it looks great.
HARRIS: Yeah. The costumes are absolutely fantastic, I have to say, especially Queen Charlotte.
HARRIS: Her various wigs...
WELDON: Wig budget.
HARRIS: ...Are fantastic (laughter). So I was a huge fan of the costumes, even though I am not exactly a costume-period-drama type of person. Audie, what did you think of "Bridgerton"? I actually can't say "Bridgerton" without saying "Bridgerton."
CORNISH: I think it's built that way on purpose. You know, I didn't read the books that it's based on, but I appreciate that it's extremely popular romance series. And I have to admit, at first, when I first hit play, it was so candy-colored and so heaving-bosom, I was just like, I don't think I can do this.
CORNISH: And I'm glad I stuck around because the executive producer has done a lot of time in the Shonda Rhimes salt mines. He's worked on every one of the shows - you know, "Private Practice" and "Grey's Anatomy" and even random ones you might not have seen, like the Seattle Grace spinoff. And he brings that sensibility to the whole thing, which means you're going to get an amazing cast, meaning you're going to get people who you thought - how could you not have done this before? Like, how could you not be the queen or the handsome duke or whoever before?
CORNISH: How could you have been overlooked for so long? And you'll also get kind of unexpected conversations in this case about marriage, right? It's a show actually not so much about romance as it is about marriage and compromise and our old ideas about what marriage is and using this period to talk about what our new ideas are about marriage.
And also, conversations about race, which - I have to admit - in the early episodes, I thought it was colorblind casting without comment. And then later on, you learn - and I won't spoil it for anyone - that the show is actually trying to give you a kind of what-if scenario about the Regency period that has to do with people of color, and the way that they have the characters kind of talk about that is actually really surprising and interesting. And it's the kind of thing that I think carries you along when it gets a little bit slow and you get a little bit bored wondering who's going to get an invitation to where or what dress they're going to wear.
HARRIS: There seems to be a ball or some sort of social event every episode.
HARRIS: And those are fun. Soraya, a little birdie told me that you were a little less on board with "Bridgerton" (laughter). Share your thoughts.
MCDONALD: I was not thrilled by it.
MCDONALD: I almost felt like it wasn't dense enough, that, like, there just wasn't enough to sort of hold my interest. I think part of it is also because the cast is so big that, after a while, like, I just got tired of trying to keep track of who everyone was. But, you know, I am a fan of boldly anachronistic period dramas. I think where "Bridgerton" sort of disappoints for me is that it has a characteristic that I think works very well for network television. I feel like a lot of its actors aren't actually quite developed enough to have the screen presence that they need to sort of push through all of that incredibly colorful, volcanic production design, you know. And so, like, I'm not necessarily as invested in them. I'm like, OK, so Daphne has been appointed the girl of the season, and I'm just kind of like, why?
MCDONALD: Right? I know, OK, so the queen said so. But, like, girl, why? (Laughter).
HARRIS: It does seem to sort of have that problem - right? - of - I do feel like Daphne - at least for me, I think the show wants to be bold. And as Glen said, it hints that it's going to be very, very edgy and have a lot of different types of relationships happening, and really, it just winds up being mostly hetero couples, and the interracial part is kind of the bold thing. But it's not enough, I think. But with her, it's kind of like, well, she is what you would expect to be in this type of story, like, this love story. She's thin, waifish, very innocent-looking, looks like she could be, like, maybe 15 or 16 and...
HARRIS: Which makes it weird to watch her and the duke because the duke looks like the age he is (laughter). So I'm, like, hmm. But, yeah, I found her also kind of bland.
MCDONALD: And there are - you know, I do feel like, structurally, there are some issues with the show. You know, one of them is a holdover from the books, which is basically this issue around consent because, you know, the duke is very adamant about the fact that - well, he tells Daphne that he can't have children. And so, basically, we're following along as Daphne, who knows nothing, is learning, really, about the mechanics of sex and how they work.
And we discover that the duke is basically - we don't actually know if he has any swimmers. He won't let them get anywhere. But the problem is, basically, when - some folks have characterized it as sexual assault. Some folks have said that she's raped him. It's definitely - there's this ickiness where Daphne, like, takes control of an inebriated duke and basically, like, forces him to finish in a way that he doesn't want to.
CORNISH: And it is an interesting discussion also about the history of consent and love in romance novels, which I know they have long wrestled with. Many people say today they don't write these things the same way, and I respect and understand that. But, like, this book is from that period where people, I think, were still doing stuff. And it was criticized at the time, I think.
MCDONALD: It was.
CORNISH: But you're right. I think it also goes to the point that the show is so candy-colored, so fun, so enamored with its, you know, Ariana Grande covers from the Vitamin String Quartet that when there is something that's, like, very sexual, you're a little bit like, whoa. Like, you feel like you're your own parent who walked in the room and caught yourself watching something.
CORNISH: Like, it just comes out of nowhere in a way.
CORNISH: And I think scenes like that are more serious than the show can handle in a way.
CORNISH: Like, it's somehow not built for - of that level of conversation.
MCDONALD: I think that is exactly it, which is very different from a period show like "Outlander," right?
CORNISH: Yeah, the whole thing is about that. And they really - I think the show even took it quite seriously. I thought about this when Glen was talking as well because, again, they brush up on the idea of this same-sex relationship in a way that is so not daring (laughter).
CORNISH: It's like, they show you something, but then you're like, well, why?
CORNISH: You know? And I do respect the fact that most of the sex scenes in the show were not gratuitous. Everything was there because, narratively, it had something to do with what was going on. But I also, just again, it felt like they - it was too hot to handle, like, even for them. Like, they couldn't quite figure out...
CORNISH: Or maybe their intimacy coordinator got out ahead of the writing (laughter) because everything looks really intense, but then they don't seem to take it all very seriously.
WELDON: Right. And I think what we're all talking about is the show's weightlessness, which part of it is intentional, but part of it, I think, comes down to the fact that I don't think the show does something that the writers it's emulating did very well. Like, Austen in particular would always draw a very clear and direct line for the audience between loss of reputation - which who cares? - to the loss of station and, more importantly, the loss of wealth. So it's not just about getting snubbed at the opera; it's about the threat of financial ruin. Now, there is a plotline that gets introduced, but then it is very quickly dropped. And that was a chance to demonstrate real repercussions of all this, like physical financial repercussions. But it just gets kind of swept under the rug.
CORNISH: But there is a lot of conversation about women and their station and loss. And, I mean, it seems like that is the driver towards the end. How do you feel like it was dropped?
WELDON: The plotline about one family not having money and in debt. That's a thing that could have had carried real weight, but it doesn't carry the weight it should. Also, I'm curious about what you guys thought about the explanation for how the aristocracy became so diverse. We get one conversation between Lady Danbury and the duke to explain it all, which struck me as kind of a half-measure. Either we dig into this, or we just simply assert it. And that one scene, although it was really interesting, just didn't carry the weight. And that's what we keep talking about.
HARRIS: I hated it.
MCDONALD: Yep, I hated it, too. I really did.
HARRIS: I went into it - by Episode 4, I was like, oh, OK, we're just going to pretend that this is what it is; we're not going to acknowledge anything. I was, like, accepting of that. I was like, it's going to be like the Rodgers and Hammerstein "Cinderella" with Brandy and Whoopi Goldberg married to Victor Garber with a South Asian son somehow. It's - we're going to make it work.
HARRIS: Colorblind casting. And then they throw in one scene where they mention it. And it's sort of hinted at in subtext in other scenes. But the king fell in love with a person of color, and then everyone just fell in line. I mean, there are multiple ways to go with that. Like, if you're going to introduce that, then at least, like, expand on it a bit more and try to explain the world-building, or just don't do it at all. Just say, this is what it is. It felt very ham-fisted and is an aspect of these attempts in recent, you know, film and TV shows to bring in inclusivity in a way that feels unearned and feels very just, like, superficial.
MCDONALD: Like, I think the difference between sort of, like, "The Great" or the Rodgers and Hammerstein "Cinderella," where you actually have colorblind casting, and it just means, like, you have this jumble of people who are thrown together who are from every kind of background. Whereas I think what we're seeing in "Bridgerton" is an attempt to create on screen an actual post-racial society, right? It's like, the king married this Black woman, and then, like, everything was fine. And, like, that's what's so head-scratching because you're just like, I'm sorry - in what world does that make sense, right? (Laughter).
Like, it just - but, you know, the other thing is, well, that's not just one person; that's the attitudes of an entire society. Like, those take longer to shift, right? I mean, surely there are preexisting rivalries that maybe aren't necessarily rooted in racism, you know, but that are colored by them in some way or another that could have added texture to some of the conflicts that are going on with the show. But when you just have, like, this one line and it's like, OK, like, the swirls have, like, saved the nation, and now we just get to, like, move on...
MCDONALD: ...It just - I can't go along. I'm sorry (laughter).
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, the last thing I'll say about it is that, to that point, I do think that there is an opportunity - and maybe they'll try to do it next season, although - assuming there's a next season - although maybe they're not up to the task for this - but there is an opportunity to use that as, like - it doesn't have to be overt racism.
HARRIS: But there are so many different aspects. Like, we haven't even talked about Marina, who joins the Featherington family, which is, like, the rival family. And her station, she's - I'm assuming she's supposed to be biracial. She is pregnant and is trying to, you know, figure out what to do about that. And there's lots of interesting things about class and those sorts of things, but the show doesn't seem prepared to talk about race. And I think even though it is a fantasy, it does do a pretty good job of talking about class and stations. But the race thing could be way better. Overall, I think we all agree that "Bridgerton" is sort of a - your mileage may vary.
HARRIS: Like, depending on if you're into this type of thing - yeah, yeah.
CORNISH: Every once in a while, a good cover song works, no matter who's singing it and whatever they add to it, because the bones are good, and the bones are strong enough to carry the weight of these editions and interpretations. I know I'm going to be flamed on the Internet for saying this, but it may be possible that the "Bridgerton" series and that Julia Quinn's books can't bear the weight of these other ideas that they're trying to put on it, and so it feels off, you know. It feels like you're just trying to - the song - this cover isn't working, if you want to use that particular interpretation. And I wouldn't be surprised because that's not what I go to romance novels for.
I don't (laughter) - you know, well, I think people have talked a lot about diversity and issues of history and things like that in that genre. And I haven't gotten the sense that they're good at talking about any of those things. I think the show wanted to get beyond that, and it almost got there. And I want to say, for people who just want to watch something super light, it is super light. I mean, it is fizzy. And if you want to be entertained in that way right now, this is the show for you (laughter). And if you want to see some butts, you know, so, like...
WELDON: I didn't say it.
CORNISH: ...This is the show for you.
HARRIS: On that note (laughter), we want to know what you think about "Bridgerton." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you all for being here.
MCDONALD: Thank you.
WELDON: Thank you.
CORNISH: Thank you.
HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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