It’s a long way from Seattle Grace Hospital, but with her Netflix adaptation of Julia Quinn’s bestselling Bridgerton series, Shonda Rhimes shows us that she is as deft at handling Regency-era romance as she is medical drama. And she handles it with the same bold casting choices that have marked Grey’s Anatomy’s 17-season run.
It’s those casting choices that helps to set Bridgerton apart from other period romances available to viewers, as pugilistic prodigal son Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), aka the Duke of Hastings, returns to London to sort out his house after his father’s death. The people closest to him, like his deceased mother’s best friend, the Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) are more concerned that he get his love life in order, and find a wife, STAT.
Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) is also on the hunt for a mate for eldest daughter, the outspoken Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), who in the first episode is pegged as diamond of the season by no other than the Queen of England herself (Golda Rosheuvel).
After a series of mishaps, scandals and questionable pairings, Daphne and Simon come together to hatch a plan and pretend that they are courting, delighting society and thus saving themselves and each other from the agony of having to stave off other suitors. You can probably guess how things progress.
This is not at all an uncommon trope for Regency romance, but what Rhimes has done with her intentionally diverse cast certainly is. The Bridgertons are a deeply established white noble family while the Hastings are a Black family with a very recent peerage. The King, suffering from senility (or “madness” in Regency-era parlance), is white; his wife, Queen Charlotte, who is definitely running things, is Black. It is this crossing of racial lines at the very top, explains Lady Danbury, that allows others to follow suit. “Love,” she says, “conquers all.”
But it could be precisely with this acknowledgment of intentionally diverse casting that Rhimes runs into any issues, choosing not to cast color blind(as Lin-Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton). There has been criticism of the roles of darker-skinned Black characters in the series, with some concerned about their casting as less likeable characters. (Although, if we’re being honest, is lighter-skinned Simon really all that likeable?) My own questions about race and casting had more to do with whether people whose own oppression was probably not far in the past and whose social standing felt so precarious would happily uphold systems of classicism that were just as oppressive and prevalent as systems of racism.
Of course, we can consider all of this artistic license as much as we can call it politics; it’s a modern show for a modern audience and modern audiences deserve a cast as diverse as its viewers—hey, nobody was waltzing to Billie Eilish songs in the eighteenth century, either.
Rhimes is really just doing what her characters are doing, from Daphne and Simon with their ruse, to pregnant and unwed Marina Thompson, to the elder Bridgerton brothers and their wholly unsuitable paramours—she’s acknowledging the long-established, mostly unquestioned rules, and she’s breaking them.
Scratch that—she’s rewriting them. And we can’t wait to see which rules she rewrites next.
Get Your Regency Romance On
Can’t get enough Bridgerton? Check out these amazing historical romance books to binge while you’re waiting for the next season.