Netflix’s period drama “Bridgerton” has taken the world by storm, and with good reason. You don’t have to be a fan of period pieces to see how the series immerses viewers in a riveting universe while also confronting relevant issues in our modern world. “Bridgerton” proves my long-held belief that period pieces are among the top tier of television, when they are done right.
With the vast amount of new television series coming out these days, I’m faced with a difficult question to tackle: What exactly makes a series “good” when the range of available content is so extensive? Amid a broad variety of genres, subject matter and creative perspectives, what is the common thread that runs through everything worth watching?
“Bridgerton,” and period pieces at large, can be our case study to answer these questions. For one, good TV ought to provide a mode for escapism.
The beauty of period dramas is that there is escapism inherent within the genre because the whole concept is based on another time period. “Bridgerton” is set in 1813 London and revolves around aristocratic life, particularly that of several families with children of marrying age. “Bridgerton” finds the perfect opportunity for escapism by walking the line between the reality of the time period and extravagant fantasy, through using striking costume design that defined the Georgian period. Beyond costume design, the bright, vibrant cinematography and editing style mean that, while the show may be set in a society with an abundance of rigid and boring rules, it’s also visually striking throughout, immersing viewers in a world far, far away from their living rooms.
Escapism is also achieved through emotion. Nothing makes you forget the problems of the real world like taking on the problems of fictional characters and resonating with their experiences.
This is easily done through period pieces because the setting in a different time period implies that there’s going to be a different set of values and standards of success. Because this world is so different, viewers can easily decipher what it means to succeed while maintaining a degree of emotional separation from their own lives. In “Bridgerton,” success comes through maintaining wealth and status within aristocratic society, which requires adherence to a strict, repressive set of social rules.
For Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor, “Younger”), the protagonist and eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, this means marrying well so that her younger sisters can benefit from the status she achieves. As the show progresses, Daphne’s understanding of success begins to include her desire for love. Escapism is provided by how much we can empathize with Daphne and how we can understand the tension between wanting to take care of our families while also seeking our own personal happiness. The passionate relationship between Daphne and the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page, “Sylvie’s Love”) is thoughtfully built, and it feels real. This passion also leads to an absurd amount of sex scenes — which is another form of escapism, if you’re into that.
It’s clear that escapism is rooted in our ability to empathize with the problems of the characters in the show. “Bridgerton” not only creates a vibrant world but a world whose problems we can easily adopt every episode. This notion isn’t exclusive to period pieces, obviously, but I think period pieces do it better because the distinctive rules and values make the emotional struggles of its characters more blatant.
However, escapism alone isn’t quite enough to merit a series’s quality. At the end of the day, the problems have to mean something, otherwise we wouldn’t actually care. There are definitely shows that provide escapism for escapism’s sake, but in order for a show to be meaningful and have longevity, there ought to be context and relevance behind the problems the characters face. Ultimately, there needs to be a message that connects the show back to our current reality. This is easily achieved in period pieces because, while they may take place in a different time period, they still exist within our own universe.
In the case of “Bridgerton,” we can relate to how the characters battle to reconcile their sense of self within a society guided by strict rules. We can relate to how the show depicts the unique ways men and women must maneuver themselves to fit the norm, which is similar to how gender currently creates distinct experiences in the real world. Many of us can relate to putting up walls that prevent us from loving each other freely, just like the Duke of Hastings does.
The show also addresses issues of economic privilege, like when Penelope (Nicola Coughlan, “Derry Girls”) fights with Eloise (Claudia Jessie, “Vanity Fair”) for shaming her about subscribing to the idea of marriage, as not everyone is allowed to pursue their own goals and desires to the same degree as some simply cannot afford to. In the show and in our world, sometimes our financial wellbeing must supersede our personal values. I mean, just look at the number of people majoring in subjects they don’t care about because they need to secure a living wage.
“Bridgerton” asks questions that we can ask too. How can women empower themselves in a society that seeks to subjugate them? How can rigid definitions of success be expanded? “Bridgerton” shows us an amplified version of the rules and struggles we face, so that while it provides escapism it also remains grounded in something very real.
We will always have a personal preference for some TV shows over others. Some of us prefer crime shows, others prefer reality shows and others prefer fantasy adventures. There are also plenty of other factors that one can choose to value when reviewing media. Maybe, in order to be “good,” a show must give a voice to the powerless, say something new or have impressive special effects, and the list goes on. That’s all well and fine with me, but at its core, TV ought to be a parallel: a mirror held up to our world that also takes a leap of faith to visit.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.