Having exhausted every show that seemed remotely interesting, Dr. SJ and I decided to watch a shonda called “Bridgerton.” It wasn’t entirely beyond the pale, as a British costume melodrama set in the early 19th Century. I loved Downton Abbey for its insight into life among the British aristocracy and those who served it.
Had I been alive then, I would have been a stablehand at best if I survived to adulthood, making me appreciate all the more that I have Georgian sterling on my formal dinner table. God bless America, the land of opportunity. But I digress.
Bridgerton is the child of Shonda Rhimes, whose increasingly woke medlodramas Grey’s Anatomy and How To Get Away With Murder have done inordinate harm to medicine and law school, respectively. But this was historical. How can one damage history?
The show’s casting diversity is its most immediately striking quality, not just in Black aristocratic characters like the duke and Lady Danbury, but also in the entrepreneurial Madame Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale) and the working-class couple Will and Alice Mondrich (Martins Imhangbe and Emma Naomi). All of them are central to the complicated social caste system that make up the show’s version of early 1800s London.
In Rhimes’ England, the Queen of England is black while slavery persists in America. The male lead of the series is the Duke of Hastings, an extremely handsome black man, who was reared by Lady Danbury, also black, who is by far the wittiest person in the show.
The female lead is the diamond of debut, anointed by the queen, who is white and wonderful when she’s matching wits with the duke, but looks as if she’s about to burst out crying otherwise and melt on the floor.
After the initial ‘suspend your disbelief” moment, I realized that I was watching actors act, and their race quickly faded into the background. So what if the duke was black, despite the fact that he alone had a collar on his frock coat that stood straight up while every other male character had a normal collar? It made the point that actors act, without regard to any racial disparities, which struck my as I consider the cries of outrage about a non-transgender actor portraying a transgender character.
To be frank, if this was Shonda Rhimes’ point, to show that the race of actors, even if ahistorical, didn’t detract from their acting ability or the viewers’ ability to enjoy the series, she nailed it. But then, she just couldn’t let it stop there.
“We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us,” the quick-witted Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) tells her protégé, the Duke of Hastings. “Look at everything it is doing for us, allowing us to become.” She insists, “Love, Your Grace, conquers all.”
There it was, in the fourth episode of the series. She just couldn’t not say it out loud.
In contrast, the characters of “Bridgerton” never seem to forget their blackness but instead understand it as one of the many facets of their identity, while still thriving in Regency society. The show’s success proves that people of color do not have to be erased or exist solely as victims of racism in order for a British costume drama to flourish.
There were three ways this could have gone. The first was to be historically accurate as to race, which would have meant that there were no good roles for black actors. The second was to ignore race entirely, which meant that the actors’ skills would prove that acting isn’t constrained by the race of the actor. The third was to reduce the hard work of actors to their lowest racial denominators, as if they can simultaneously indulge in a history that never existed while being seen as convincing actors whose race was irrelevant while making their “blackness” matter even as it doesn’t.
For all its innovations, “Bridgerton” has its own blind spots. I found it strange that it is only the Black characters who speak about race, a creative decision that risks reinforcing the very white privilege it seeks to undercut by enabling its white characters to be free of racial identity.
Indeed, this could have been a wonderful moment where a historical melodrama showed that today, we could transcend such irrelevancies as race and see the story, the actors, the time period, as if we were watching a world that should have existed, even if it didn’t. Instead, it had to introduce the lecture to remind us that we just can’t overcome race, no matter who was the queen or the duke.
It’s not that Bridgerton is drama in the way that Downton Abbey was, as this is Shonda Rhimes and intended for an audience that sees Real Housewives as too philosophical for pleasant viewing. But it was so close, so very close, to nailing down a point that was worth making, that we can watch and believe actors without regard to their immutable characteristics. Instead, she broke the spell and had to smack viewers across their face that no matter how good the racially irrelevant acting was, no matter how aristocratic the roles given them were, there was still a grievance to be had, and Rhimes had to make sure we knew it.