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Larger than life: Shona Rhimes’ ‘Bridgerton’ a wonderfully anachronistic mashup

Jonathan Bailey as Anthony Bridgerton in Netflix’s “Bridgerton.” (Nick Briggs/Netflix)

Ooooh, that Lady Featherington is such a manipulative, social-climbing schemer, I hope she gets hers!

I’m not sure I trust that nosy Penelope, either. Eloise Bridgerton, on the other hand: She’s got pluck. I’m rooting for her. As for the Duke of Hastings, he’s a good man, but his stubbornness is driving me crazy. Come on, Duke of Hastings, get it together!

Then there’s Lady Whistledown, skulking in the shadows, ruining lives with a flourish of her pen. When are we going to learn her identity?

Those references will mean nothing if you haven’t read Julia Quinn’s popular “Bridgerton” books, but after you’ve watched the first few episodes of the Netflix serial bearing the same title, the names of the various Bridgertons and Featheringtons and other assorted characters will be as familiar to you as the Dowager Countess of Grantham and Mr. Bates et al. were to “Downton Abbey” fans.

“Bridgerton” is the first scripted series from Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder”) since Rhimes signed a nine-figure deal with Netflix, and it’s an unqualified triumph – a show that will give you that unmistakable binge twinge and have you activating that “Next Episode” time and time again, until there are no more “Next Episodes.” (A Season 2 is already in the works.)

Set in England’s Regency era, in the early 19th century, but carrying a decidedly modern tone, from the diverse characters to the orchestral covers of songs by the likes of Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, “Bridgerton” is Jane Austen meets “Scandal” meets “Gossip Girl” meets “The Favourite,” resulting in a wonderfully anachronistic mashup with gorgeous visuals, high-end production values and suitably larger-than-life performances by the talented cast. On the surface, it’s about the highly ritualized and maddeningly misogynistic courtship season in the upper echelons of society, but there’s an underlying current of timely social commentary running throughout the series. (It’s also funny as hell and features some smoldering sexual encounters, including a full-fledged orgy.)

Phoeby Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page in “Bridgerton,” the first Shonda Rhimes production to premiere on Netflix. (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Season 1 of “Bridgerton” takes place over the course of one courtship season in London, with aristocratic families prepping marriage-age daughters for a series of lavish luncheons and parties and evening balls, in the hopes one of the eligible (and well-off) bachelors will make an offer of marriage. The most desirable suitor of all is Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Rege-Jean Page), who swoops into town like he’s the latest catch on “The Bachelor.” Simon would seem to be the perfect match for the clear darling of the bachelorette set, one Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). But Simon has taken a vow to never marry, and Daphne has this crazy notion of finding someone she actually loves, so they hatch a plan: They’ll pretend to be in love but won’t get engaged. That way, Simon won’t have to contend with dozens of ingenues hovering about, and Daphne will enhance the Bridgerton family profile by drawing the attentions of a duke, which certainly will attract any number of legitimate candidates to be her husband.

Let the games begin.

Ben Miller as Lord Featherington in “Bridgerton.” (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

“Bridgerton” pops with brightly colored visuals, from the elaborate costumes with tones of turquoise and gold and bright red to the beautifully maintained mansions to the meticulously groomed gardens. As the faux courtship of Simon and Daphne becomes real and they encounter one soap opera-level obstacle after another, we’re drawn into nearly a dozen other intertwining storylines involving the aforementioned Lady Featherington (Polly Walker), who is desperate to marry off one of her three daughters, the Featheringtons’ country cousin Marina (Ruby Barker), who is harboring a deep secret, and various Bridgerton siblings. There are boxing matches and forbidden romances and even a duel at dawn. None of these people actually work for a living, but they sure are busy getting busy.

What happens in London doesn’t really stay in London, because nearly every scandal, every betrayal, every secret romance is exposed in a newsletter written by the mysterious Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews, no less), who exposes her subjects to ruin by naming names. Nobody knows the true identity of Lady Whistledown (they might as well have called her Lady Whistleblower), but she is feared by everyone, even Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), who has assembled a task force to uncover Whistledown’s identity.

Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury in “Bridgerton.” (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Virtually no mention is made of Simon, the queen, cousin Marina and Simon’s mother-figure mentor Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) being Black. That’s just the way it is in this fantastically revisionist world. (Some historians contend Queen Charlotte descended from a Black branch of the Portuguese royal family.) The prejudice and stereotyping we see from certain characters in “Bridgerton” are born of class status, not racism. Through all the glossy melodrama and entertaining high jinks, it’s a real gut punch every time someone we care about in this story is denied the chance at real love because it wouldn’t sit right with society and would result in condemnation from that sanctimonious Lady Whistledown and her damn scandal sheet.

Ooooh, I hope Lady Whistledown gets hers one of these days.

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