The chemistry between Bridgerton leads Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor is off the charts. Credit: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

It was only a matter of time before I would watch Bridgerton. For one, I’m more hungry for new content now than ever, devouring nearly every series the second it drops. But Netflix’s latest offering was unique in the way TV watchers are passionately talking about it in a way that made it impossible to ignore the show even if I tried, in part because of what were promised to be steamy (and somewhat controversial) sex scenes. Bridgerton has struck a deep chord—one that has caused it to become one of Netflix’s most-watched series, reaching 63 million households since its Christmas Day debut. So what’s all the fuss about?

On the surface, there’s nothing inherently original about it. It’s not the first period piece filled with salacious drama, and in fact is not even the first Netflix period piece filled with salacious drama—an unnamed colleague of mine speculated that Bridgerton is for people who don’t have the patience for The Crown or Downtown Abbey. In a way that’s true, and is part of the appeal. Nearly ten months into quarantining in the middle of a pandemic, what Bridgerton offers is pure escapism that doesn’t ask viewers to work too hard. As pointed out on Twitter, the most complicated part of the series is telling apart the three white, brunette actors who play the Bridgerton brothers.

The story is simple: it’s ball season in Regency-era London, and all the eligible women are on the prowl for a husband, hopefully a high-ranking one. Our heroine, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), is not just looking to be married off to any old suitor. She wants to marry someone who is like her best friend, taking a cue from her own parents’ marriage. Enter Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a dashing, rakish gentleman who has no interest in getting married or carrying on his family line with an heir. Naturally, these two have electric chemistry and become the will-they-won’t-they at the center of the series. Filling out their world there’s the protective, duty-ridden older brother; the eccentric, stylish godmother; the beautiful but pregnant cousin; and, certainly not least of all, there’s Lady Whistledown, the anonymous author of a gossip rag that exposes everyone’s secrets and speculates on who will end up with whom. Each issue is turned into the episode’s voiceover à la Gossip Girl, narrated by none other than Julie Andrews, a delightful addition to the series.

What sets it apart, however, is important. This is the first production in a major deal made between Netflix and Shonda Rhimes (a native Chicagoan!) back in 2017. Rhimes has been widely known for her steamy, over-the-top, emotional dramas with diverse casts since Grey’s Anatomy became an instant hit 15 years ago. But still, she was constrained to the boundaries of network television, which not only includes censorship, set lengths, and limited budgets, but also exists in a more restrictive part of the industry that is slower to encourage diversity in casting, especially, one can imagine, in a period piece. Netflix allows its producers to seemingly do whatever they want, to great success in shows like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever and lesser success in the entire Ryan Murphy catalog. To that degree, Bridgerton (which was created by Chris Van Dusen, who worked with Rhimes on Grey’s and Scandal) might be the most successful of them all, and is a beacon of hope for the next projects to come from Rhimes.

There’s a magic to the way sex is depicted in the series. Yes, there are the steamy sex scenes, finally shown in the way that we’ve known Rhimes has wanted to since Meredith Grey and McDreamy first locked eyes in Grey’s Anatomy. But there’s also a tenderness about them. The first electric moment between the core couple comes in episode three when they almost hold hands. The female characters don’t even know what sex is, accurately depicting the repression and unbalanced expectations of the era (ideals that unfortunately still permeate much of the world today). While the men are off secretly meeting with women known as the dredges of society to satisfy themselves, the women are worried that being around an unmarried pregnant woman may cause them to catch the same condition. Perhaps it’s that very repression that make later scenes showing Daphne taking so much pleasure in sex that make them all the more satisfying. And it’s that lack of understanding about sex that leads to one of the series’ most controversial scenes involving marital rape. But before that moment, the scenes are reminiscent of another pandemic quarantine hit, Normal People. It’s extravagant and escapist because of the setting and the exponential attractiveness of the people doing it, sure, but mostly just an accurate depiction of sex between two people who love each other.

And of course, the casting is phenomenal, not just because of how wildly talented everyone is (while I was watching my roommate was in and out, stopping to simply say, “They are great at acting”), but because of how diverse it is. Unfortunately it’s still very rare to see people of color in so many leading roles in a series, let alone a period piece, and even more rare still to see people of color in a period piece in the highest ranking—Queen Charlotte herself is played by Golda Rosheuvel, a Black actor known for her work in London’s theater scene.

The result of all this is a perfect storm that would likely hit no matter what. But what tips it above and beyond is that it’s the perfect show for this exact moment. Bridgerton gives us everything we’re craving right now: extravagant parties, elaborate outfits, salacious gossip, human touch. And it all happens in a long-ago era, one that hasn’t been whitewashed, and for eight hours we can simply get caught up in the fun.   v