My friends are chattering about Bridgerton, the new Shonda Rhimes-produced series on Netflix. They compare it to Sanditon, the recent series based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen that recently played on Masterpiece Theatre. There is little, however, of Austen beyond the surface of this new series. Bridgerton is more Agnes Nixon than Jane Austen; it is All My Children wrapped in Regency finery.
The soap opera has been a much-maligned form of entertainment. It was called “soap opera” because the earliest forms on radio were created literally to sell soap. Most people prefer the more uplifting term “serialized drama,” in the same way that comic book readers transformed their fare into “graphic novels.” My grandmother Flo called them her “stories”, and she reveled in the torrid adventures of Dr. Hardy and Jessie on General Hospital and attorney Mike Carr on The Edge of Night. In 1968, Grandma was invalided for the rest of her life after a terrible car accident that cost her her husband, my wonderful Grandpa, and her ability to walk without help. For the rest of her life, her stories became even more important to her.
Serialized drama is nothing new: for centuries, authors delivered their massive novels in installments. The famous story of Americans waiting at the docks to find out if Charles Dickens had saved or killed off Little Nell (SPOILER: he axed the kid) is a legendary example of the power of fiction to engage, enchant, and, in the serialized format, pull its fans into an endless tide of curiosity for what happens next.
Shonda Rhimes understands this power this full well and has utilized it in most of her series. Is any hospital run like Seattle Grace? For sixteen seasons, the fans of Grey’s Anatomy have shown they do not care. It doesn’t matter if there is no turgid hanky panky going on in the halls of Mitch McConnell’s Washington (although the scandals of the Trump era seem more plausible after watching Scandal – and I think it was wonderfully ironic that Kerry Washington was one of the better hosts of last year’s Democratic National Convention).
Some Grey’s fans might shrink at the idea of being called lovers of soap opera; in fact, a year-old fan forum for the show complained that it was sinking to the depths where it “feels more like a soap opera these days” – although the fan comments displayed the same passion for story arcs and plotlines that any soap fan would show.
Daytime soap fans invest in their favorite shows like no other. First, there’s the matter of time: daytime soaps air for an hour every day, and this can be an all-but-impossible commitment to make in our busy lives. Can you imagine what it was like before we had the ability to record shows? I can – because I caught the bug from my Grandma years ago and began watching soaps in earnest while I was in middle school. My gateway drug was the perfect one for a teenaged boy: Dark Shadows started out as a Gothic soap and then made the inspired decision to dive headfirst into the world of classical horror. It’s hero? A lovelorn vampire named Barnabas Collins. He was soon joined by a beautiful witch named Angelique (but she was only mean because Barnabas had scorned her love), a very hot werewolf named Quentin, a man-made monster named Adam (even his facial scars looked sexy) and assorted fiends and femmes who gravitated around the action.
I would rush out of school every day and head over to the Emporium, a nearby department store, where I would be a 13-year-old pretending to buy a television in order to watch Dark Shadows. I started arriving a bit earlier and got hooked on One Life to Live, a soap by Agnes Nixon that dealt with some pretty heavy storylines, like the light-skinned black businesswoman passing herself off as white, or the duplicitous trophy wife forced into a life of high-class prostitution.
In 1970, ABC premiered a new soap opera by Agnes Nixon called All My Children. Nixon wanted to use the traditional tropes of the medium – recognizable social setting (here, a small suburb of Philadelphia called Pine Valley), a focus on families and young love, and plots revolving around the shattering effect on good people when they hide a secret or give in to temptation – to deal with bigger issues in our society. (The first such stories revolved around the effects of the Vietnam War on those who returned and their loved ones).
It was rare that AMC let the issue get in the way of good, soapy story-telling; Nixon was a long-time veteran of the form and made sure that plot was tied into characters. Sometimes she would leave the series in other hands, and things might go south for a bit. The 80’s were a particularly egregious time for soaps, where they tried to compete with other forms and created such outlandish stories that viewers balked. Agnes Nixon would often return to exert a bit more influence on her creation and set things aright again.
But that’s another investment fans make to their favorite soap: they stick with it when things go awry and are rewarded when the ship is righted again. So they put up with some silliness: Elizabeth Taylor as a crime boss on General Hospital, or Erica Kane, AMC’s most iconic character, facing down a bear. (She cries out, “I . . . am . . . Erica . . . Kane!” and the bear backs off!!!!) Sometimes history would be rewritten, and the result would be gold: much of Erica’s early motivation stemmed from the fact that the father she loved was a cad and abandoned her – something for which she blamed her mother for a long time.
Twenty-two years into the soap, we learn that Erica’s father allowed his best friend, a famous actor, to rape his teenaged daughter, a trauma that gave Erica “soapnesia” which caused her to blank out both the rape and her subsequent pregnancy. This out-of-the-blue shocker gave the soap, and its main character, new life and a great new foil in Erica’s previously unknown daughter Kendall, who arrived in her mother’s life at, to say the least, an inopportune time.
All but a few of the dozens of soaps that used to dominate the daytime airwaves are gone now, victims of executive fears that they cost too much and delivered too little in terms of ratings. When All My Children was cancelled nearly ten years ago, I grieved – but also I felt a little relieved that the forty-one year-long commitment was over. AMC tried without success to reboot online. The latest news is that talk show host Kelly Ripa, who got her start as Hayley on AMC and met her husband there, will be exec producing a nighttime reboot of the soap called Pine Valley. Can I resist????? I think not. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting my “serial” fix with nighttime TV, and Bridgerton certainly fits the bill.
Nothing that happens in Bridgerton didn’t happen on All My Children – or Days of Our Lives or The Young and the Restless and all the rest. What the Netflix series does, a trademark of a Shonda Rhimes series that some would argue seriously improves the soap medium, is move very fast, jamming months and months of daytime soap plot into eight easily digestible but lightning quick hours. (So quick, that I often couldn’t quite catch what the actors were saying . . . ) Rhimes didn’t create this story. It is based on the first novel of an eight-book series by Julia Quinn, each one focusing on the love life of one of the eight Bridgerton children. There are several good things about this: first, if the reception for the series is as positive as the buzz currently suggests, we have seven more seasons ahead of us. Secondly, while the tropes of soap opera are there – and I imagine that, with shared characters, the novels have a certain sense of continuity – each novel seems to be a stand-alone romance with an assured ending.
This first season focuses on the eldest daughter Daphne, and it’s a clever gambit that it plays out during the “season” in London where all upper-class families bring the of-age daughters out to be (hopefully) wooed and wed. If each season of the show focuses on the next “season” of upper crust matchmaking, the youngest child Hyacinth should be ripe for the plucking by season 8. Daphne’s story may echo Pride and Prejudice in the constant bickering and growing affection of its central love couple, but it’s soap opera nonetheless. The relationship between Daphne and her Duke of Hastings, the luscious but cold (for understandable reasons, it turns out) Simon, is founded on a lie and then burns hot and cold based on who is keeping what secret from whom.
In a real soap, there is no doubt that Daphne and Simon would fall in love for real and find true happiness. However, in a daytime serial that lasts forty-one years or longer, their joy would be short-lived in order to provide each with juicy stories. (Lasting happiness a soap character is anathema to the soap actor.) Here, within eight hours, the ending to this love story should come as no surprise.
In fact, I found very little to surprise me in the main story. The twists come in the various subplots surrounding the couple, involving four of the other Bridgerton children, as well as ill-fortunes of the Featheringtons, the family next door. Most of these are soap opera retreads: the hypocritical eldest brother Anthony demanding his sister marry well even as he cavorts with a “mere” opera singer; the travails of the third son who gets smitten by the visiting cousin of the Featheringtons, unaware that she is with child, seemingly abandoned by her soldier lover, and desperate to marry before she shows; the archetype mother figures – the scheming Mrs. Featherington, the loving widowed Mrs. Bridgerton, and the wise, saucy Lady Danbury who gave Simon the help he needed as a child and – no surprise – helps guide the couple toward their destined happiness.
Two more promising storylines involve Eloise Bridgerton, the second daughter, who sneers at following in her sister’s footsteps and gets involved in the series’ mystery – ALL good soaps have mysteries – as to the identity of Lady Whistledown, the mysterious figure who publishes a gossip rag about the members of high society (I’m happy to say that this mystery resolves itself to a certain degree at the end to great, if totally illogical, effect), and Benedict Bridgerton, the second son, whose love of art gets him involved with some interesting people and might lead to his being less of a hypocritical prig than his brother.
The eight episodes end as a short-term continuing drama should: the main storyline is resolved, but issues surrounding Anthony, Eloise, Dominick and the Featheringtons are unresolved and will surely form the basis of Season Two. (My guess is that this will focus on Anthony.) The series is beautifully filmed – what a great way to inaugurate my new giant-sized smart TV! – the actors look good, and most of them act well enough, especially Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page as Daphne and Simon. I really like the actresses playing Eloise and her best friend Penelope, the youngest Featherington girl; I just wish they weren’t forced to speak a mile a minute!
Since this is a Netflix show, it can eschew the family values of Proctor & Gamble and be very sexy. And it is sexy as hell; the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable, and all the men look hot when their shirt is loosened or when they go bare-chested. Even the boxing scenes between Simon and his best friend Will have a certain, ahem, erotic power!!
Since this is a Shonda Rhimes produced series, it is beautifully cast with an amalgam of mixed races. A quick conversation early on gives a rationale for this – evidently, the mad King George married a woman of mixed race – but honestly, this wasn’t necessary, although a minimal amount of energy is expended to show the high stakes for the black characters for having been granted equality. As much as there need to be more stories made about the experience of all peoples of color, we also need more color-blind casting if for no other reason to show how beautiful society looks when we’re all the same. There are black, brown, and white characters populating every strata of Bridgerton society, and it makes one wistful to see them love and hate each other for every human reason except racial prejudice.
I’m sure there is more intended to this element of the series than I have written, but I want to turn to the elephant in the room – the much-discussed sex scene in Episode Six where it has been argued that an act of rape occurs. The twist is that it appears to be Daphne who has raped Simon. This is hard to discuss without spoiling matters, so be forewarned here.
To put it simply: for various reasons, Simon has vowed never to have children. Daphne wants children. At the end of each of their passionate love-making trysts, Simon has, ahem, pulled out before completion. (How anyone can imagine that this is an effective form of birth-control . . . well, it was 1815.) On one night, however, Daphne won’t let Simon pull out. She turns the tables on him, mounting him and forcing him to finish inside her. This act provides the gist for the problems facing them throughout the rest of the series.
Millions of people have had to deal with acts of sexual aggression against them; I count myself among their number. So what I present here is only my opinion and is in no way meant to be stated as fact. I simply believe the issues surrounding Daphne’s decision are too complex to be dismissed as anything approaching rape. The creators of the series found a quick fix to creating another all-white Regency romance, and I think this helps them focus on the big underlying issue in the series: the social position of women.
On a personal level, Daphne and Simon share equal blame for the problems they faced in their relationship. They basically utilized every soap opera trope on their path to happiness: creating a fake relationship to aid Daphne in escaping social censure and getting all the hungry girls (and their hungrier mothers) off Simon’s back. Even after true love reared its head, nearly every step leading to and from their marriage included a lie or a secret.
That’s just good ol’ soap opera storytelling: two basically good people make one mistake after another, raising the “will-they-or-won’t-they” stakes to a fever pitch for their audience. Surely their passion will carry them to a happy ending! Surely they will finally face up to each other and tell the truth. The only question is how engaging will that path be, and the answer is that it works pretty well.
But the series is considering a larger question, one that I believe firmly places our sympathies in Daphne’s court: the refusal of society to give women all the facts of life, to make them anything more than the well-dressed property of their husbands or to even teach them the basic knowledge of what to expect on their wedding night. Much is made of how ignorant of sexual matters the young women of Bridgerton are, and one of the best aspects of the series is the shock (and delight mixed with horror) Daphne feels as she starts to become aware of what being a wife will constitute in the marriage bed. The greatest gift Simon gives his intended is information about her own body; it’s about the only time he is forthcoming to her in helpful ways.
Plot-wise, I don’t think Daphne even understands what the implications of striding atop her husband are; I tend to think she is trying to “fix” a problem incurred by his pulling out of her, without quite realizing his intent. She gets hints of it from the housekeeper, but I think she’s trying to make things right. A lot of her impulse is selfish because she really wants a baby. But if soap opera characters didn’t all behave selfishly at times, they would be written off in a hot minute or relegated to family parties where they dispense advice and give a toast.
You can see on Simon’s face that he is initially delighted by his wife’s fervor. He only gets truly upset when he sees her face after sex and realizes that . . . she had a plan! I’m not denying he was used here, but I can’t honestly lay much of the blame for this at Daphne’s door. I blame Simon who refused to lay himself open to his bride. I blame Daphne’s mother, who admits herself that she supplied her daughter with no useful information whatsoever. And I blame men, who fashioned this society in the first place. There’s a fun scene toward the end of the series, when Lady Danbury invites newlywed Daphne to a “married women only” party. There, the women drink heavily, gamble, talk raucously – they basically behave like men, but in secret.
We are living in interesting times. The crises brought about by this can’t-wait-for-it-to-go administration have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, wrecked the economic stability of millions of working-class people (even as stocks soar and feed the rich) and threatened to tear apart our social fabric. Ironically, the events of the past four years have brought about one of those rarely occurring opportunities for great and lasting change. In the opening episode of the most recent season of The Good Fight, one of my very favorite series, Christine Baranski’s character woke up to find that the Trump presidency had all been a bad dream. Hilary was president, and all seemed right with the political world.
Except . . . there had been no #MeToo movement, and Baranski found herself heading to an appointment with the firm’s new client, Harvey Weinstein, who tried to rape her protegee. With the bad comes the good – or, at least, the potential for good. The anger generated by police killings of black people seems to have finally ignited a call for change shared by a great many white people. The issues raised by Trump and his co-horts’ treatment of women has raised a similar outcry. There’s no telling how much series like Bridgerton can help that cause. It probes a lot of the same issues that the play and musical Spring Awakening did (and the play was written in 1906!), but it allows us to experience the issues in a more delightful, colorful way. I would suggest that it can only help us if our comedies take us down these paths as much as our tragedies do.
To continually bear witness to depictions of society that grapple successfully with the poor choices we have always made in setting up our societies (and tried our best to avoid coming to terms with, as half our country currently seems to be doing) is a good thing. The primary purpose of Bridgerton is to entertain. If while doing so, it keeps the subject going, never lets us forget what’s wrong, and encourages us into discussions of our problems and how to make them better, then sign me up for the next seven seasons.