Bridgerton is not a period piece. Instead of being historical fiction, it appropriates some of the forms of extant romantic fiction for its own narrative ends. For instance, it makes it difficult to view the servant class as servants. Instead, they appear as stage directors, as minders of the roles to be played by the protagonists, as the orchestra pit (playing a score of pop songs in faux old timey strings), as costume designers (inspired by past fashions, not recreating them). Contrast this depiction with the rose-tinted glasses of Julian Fellowes’s shows (Down Abbey and Gilded Age), which try to split their focus between aristocracy and servant, and thereby rewrite history as if composed of mostly amiable class differences. Bridgerton tries to be a show about love and courtship to the point that all else falls away. Perhaps one of its uses for historically adjacent fictional forms is in order to exclude empire and racism. I don’t know whether that’s to heighten the sexual drama of thirty-somethings pretending to be much younger, or to say something about the universality of love.
Why use the trappings of this period? There are two broad reasons: one pertains to the conflicts it provides for the sake of its presented attitudes; the other pertains to the forms available to our current artistic epoch.
Regarding the first, the expectations of the English aristocratic courtship drama provide a template both to follow and from which to break. There is an expected sequence, which is all the more apparent with the second season’s repetition of “the season,” the Queen naming her “diamond,” the entry of women into society for the first time, the expectations that certain men ought to marry by now, and so on. In short, every character has a role to play. And so, too, does every character have a basis for instigating a narrative-motivating conflict. This applies as much to the primary couple of the season (both the season of the show Bridgerton and the in-fiction courtship season) as to the plots between friends (Eloise and Penelope as insider-outsiders), between minor characters and their pursuits (Benedict Bridgerton and art school), and newcomers wanting to selfishly take from the existing social structure (the new Lord Featherington). As Badiou says of Love’s universality, its depiction in art often involves contravening social conventions because it is in the nature of Truth to cut across the situation’s rules of organization. The presentation of love in Romeo and Juliet depends upon its prohibition by the conflict between Montague and Capulet. And so the courtship template between members of more or less prominent families with ambiguous degrees of wealth and status at stake stages what could easily be transposed into a completely distinct setting.
Here is where the second aspect comes into the fold. Bound up with the facility by which an Austen-esque English courtship drama stages Bridgerton’s narrative is the relationship those forms have with other modes of staging such a drama. One way to phrase this is that Bridgerton is not set in 18th-century English aristocratic life; if it is historically set at all, then it is set in a fan fictional recreation of (a movie adaptation of) a Jane Austen novel. That is to say, the show’s formal selections balance recognition with freshness. It is neither entirely cliché nor entirely strange. For example, Bridgerton’s deployment of a vaguely aristocratic hierarchy of families gains its force entirely from the behaviors of one family toward another. The quasi-historical garb and set design gives the impression of wealth, status, inter-familial histories, and strict social expectations. Even calling it “quasi-historical” overstates the historical quality of the show. In the climax of the second season, a string quartet covers Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” on a platform that rotates. The costumes are not old; they are rich. When they are seductive, they are so in a contemporary manner. While they may appear historical at first blush, they are repurposed for everything but their historical nature. On the contrary, the only history at stake is the history of romantic narrative. Bridgerton borrows from other works of art and not from a historical period.
The viscount’s estate ledgers and Featherington’s business demands are nothing more than masculine coded fluff and sources of distraction for whatever scene needs one. They levy vague notions of familial wealth and New World investments for plot. The final episode cements my read of the show’s strict selection of forms from older fiction for its own narrative ends. Theo chastises Eloise for her “unearned birth,” but its sense is hollow. All the meaningful dialogue is about characters throwing off their roles, of being imposters, of not being themselves due to familial circumstances, or about asserting one’s role (Lady Featherington’s “I am a mother"), imploring others to pursue their individual passions (“If you want to paint, paint!"), and revealing others' desires (the Sharma sisters' desires for one another’s happiness and freedom; the Queen’s desire to recreate her love with her King now lost due to dementia). The trappings of English aristocracy are employed to effect an ambience of grandeur, a feeling of hierarchy, a sense of regimentation, which together frame the contemporary sensibilities (recognizable in the dress, dialogue, score, and casting, among other elements) with clear stakes and boundaries. One look at Bridgerton transports the viewer to “the season”—not the 18th-century season but to a courtship season in which the only sense of time that matters is the one produced by its narrative.