TV & Radio

Bridgerton has totally obliterated the traditional costume drama

Is that a sweeping orchestral cover of a Pitbull song I hear? Playing over some hot and heavy snogging in the back of a horse-drawn carriage? It can mean only one thing – the return of Bridgerton. Netflix’s revisionist costume drama is now in its third series, and all of its Regency-ish hallmarks are present and correct. The beautiful debutantes dancing the quadrille to the strains of a present-day pop song. The script that crosses its fingers and hopes that a smattering of “Your Grace” and “My Lord” will be enough to mimic early 19th-century speech. The glittering costumes that are part Palladium panto, part Met Gala. It’s worlds away from the more straight-laced costume dramas that once dominated Sunday night TV schedules.

Reviews for the latest season, which focuses on Nicola Coughlan’s Penelope Featherington and her friendship-turned-romance with third Bridgerton brother Colin (Luke Newton), have been mixed to say the least. The Independent’s chief TV critic Nick Hilton described the writing as “particularly flimsy”; on the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian praised its “slickness and relentless fun”. Whatever the verdict, though, Bridgerton is now practically critic-proof, an all-but guaranteed hit. When the second season premiered in April 2022, it racked up 193 million hours of viewing time on Netflix in just three days, beating a record previously held by… the first season. Success like this inevitably breeds imitation. And the show’s legacy is now clear: it has changed the rules of the genre entirely – which might be a mixed blessing.

In the four years since Bridgerton made its debut, the show has cast an Empire-waisted shadow over anachronistic period productions, leading to projects such as Netflix’s adaptation of Persuasion – featuring Dakota Johnson as a fourth-wall-breaking Austen heroine with a millennial vocabulary – and Apple TV’s version of Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel The Buccaneers, which re-styled Wharton’s new-money, husband-hunting Americans as a girl gang straight out of a Marc Jacobs perfume ad. Its influence could also be felt, in watered-down form, in ITV’s take on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a novel that Bridgerton’s more bookish characters would surely be familiar with.

No longer an extravagant, knowingly OTT upstart, Bridgerton is now the model to copy when it comes to telling period stories. But what of the more traditional costume drama? It seems to have all but died out. A decade or so ago, I could’ve reeled off an entire library’s worth of classics that had recently been turned into a weighty, relatively faithful series by a big terrestrial broadcaster. But to do so now requires serious wracking of brains. Last year, the BBC unveiled a(nother) version of Great Expectations, written by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, but it didn’t live up to, well, its title. And it was hardly a straightforward take, either. If Bridgerton turns up the exposure on life in the past to create a dazzlingly bright fantasy, Knight’s spin on Dickens did the exact opposite. It revelled in murk and strained a little too hard in its attempts to innovate, with its opium-addled Miss Havisham and a strange BDSM side plot involving Mr Pumblechook (believe me when I say those are not words I ever hoped to type).

The fact that the BBC hasn’t commissioned an Austen adaptation in years – not to mention an Eliot or a Bronte or whisper it… a Trollope – implies “a crisis, or at least transition, in the genre of literary costume drama”, as the writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson argued last year. The in-depth, slow-burn adaptation that crams in the minutiae of the novel– for a textbook example, see Andrew Davies’ 2005 version of Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson and Anna Maxwell Martin – seems to have fallen entirely out of style. Perhaps it is simply too expensive for a British broadcaster to broach these days, without the mega-budgets boasted by streamers. Luca Guadagnino’s grand plan for a 10-part version of Brideshead Revisited starring the likes of Cate Blanchett, Andrew Garfield and Ralph Fiennes was shelved by the BBC a few years ago; even as a co-production with HBO, the project was just too costly, Guadagnino later revealed. 

The shift towards a highly stylised, gleefully unconventional mode was underway before we met the genetically blessed Bridgerton gang, of course. Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette was one of the first period pieces to pioneer this approach, with its Eighties new wave soundtrack and Converse All-Stars cropping up in a montage sequence. Later, the likes of Dickinson (Apple TV) and The Great (Hulu) also revelled in taking an unapologetically modern approach to two historical women (the poet Emily Dickinson and Catherine the Great, empress of Russia). Yet it took Bridgerton’s cultural dominance to really make this trend go mainstream – and to change what viewers expect from a costume drama in the process.

Some of this has undoubtedly been for the better. The genre has had a notoriously poor track record when it comes to diversity, selling an all-white version of history. “We make period dramas in Britain, but there are almost never Black people in them, even though we’ve been on these shores for hundreds of years,” the actor David Oyelowo said in 2015. “It’s frustrating, because it doesn’t have to be that way.” Bridgerton was one of the first major period shows to feature a diverse cast, thanks to a “colour-conscious” approach to casting (which takes into consideration a performer’s race and acknowledges it in the story being told). It seems to have ushered in a new norm, setting off a ripple effect that has created opportunities for talented performers previously blocked from the genre.

Not everyone, though, agrees with this approach – and not because they’re claiming that the series is “woke gone mad”. Instead, some critics question the way it deals (or avoids dealing with) racism. In Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte’s court is a fantasy world; slavery isn’t mentioned, which might make viewers wonder exactly how all the country piles and palaces were funded. Is this just another form of erasure, some historians have asked? Does anachronistic fantasy smooth over painful historical realities?

Elsewhere, the period drama 2.0 does often run the risk of flattening out nuance in a bid for relatability. There is, I should add, no such thing as a perfectly faithful costume drama. Whether it’s an old novel being adapted or a newer work set in a bygone century, it’s impossible to translate another era to the screen without it being coloured, however slightly, by our current preoccupations. But turning the volume up on certain values can lead to uneven characterisation. There’s a propensity to steamroller female characters into ahistorical girlbosses. And projects that don’t fit this mould have suffered accordingly. Sofia Coppola has claimed that Apple TV+ pulled the plug on her planned adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country because “the idea of an unlikable woman wasn’t their thing”, whereas the streamer’s version of The Buccaneers is almost grating in its girl power, to such an extent that Wharton’s clever social critique falls apart.

Some stories do lend themselves towards a zippy telling that plays fast and loose with tradition. Take the BBC’s The Pursuit of Love, for example, which felt perfectly apace with Nancy Mitford’s sharp, witty novel. Or, to borrow an example from the world of film, Armando Iannucci’s wonderful The Personal History of David Copperfield, which effervesced with Dickensian spirit (and featured a diverse cast, with Dev Patel in the lead role). Equally, though, some benefit from a more straightforward approach that gives the original story space to breathe. Persuasion was quietly heartbreaking when it was published in 1817, and remains so today; we don’t need Dakota Johnson breaking the fourth wall to force our empathy. “My personal issue with recent Wharton and Austen adaptations is that people are trying too hard to make it feel and sound contemporary rather than letting the work speak for itself,” the novelist Brandon Taylor wrote on X/Twitter last year. “It speaks to us because it speaks with great specificity about its own time. It doesn’t need help.”

The postmodern period drama can be plenty of fun. But when the sugar rush wears off, it’s hard not to crave something a bit more substantial. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was space for both in the TV schedules?

‘Bridgerton’ season three part one is out now on Netflix. Part two arrives on 13 June

Xural.com

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