Bridgerton, Dickinson and "Female" Television

Comforting and fun versus challenging and weird.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

I’ve been thinking a lot about how there are some stories that I love to read, and some stories that I love to watch.

I just finished reading The Worst Best Man, a romantic comedy. I did not particularly enjoy the activity. The pacing was too slow for me. If, however, a movie came out about a Brazilian wedding planner whose fiancé leaves her on her wedding day and years later she has to work with his brother and they fall in love and have amazing sex, SIGN ME UP.

Similarly, I don’t particularly enjoy romance novels, for the simple reason that they have too much of one thing (longing) and not enough of the other thing (sex). And I find it incredibly boring when the couple gets together.

So it was with great glee that I found out about Shondaland’s Bridgerton adaptation, a trashy Austen-esque romance based on Julia Quinn’s books – and Shonda Rhimes’s first series of her Netflix tenure – that was released over Christmas.

BRIDGERTON

I loved it. I ATE IT UP.

It’s colorful; it’s got a great score; the characters are motivated; the balls are just enough social eye candy to make me salivate in these isolated times, yet they feature enough schadenfreude and awkwardness to not make me want to stab myself in the eye with jealousy.

It’s also lavish – so lavish that you can see what’s on offer when the actors are unknowns and those Netflix dollars can be put to wardrobe, sets and Billie Eilish string arrangements.

Most of all, thanks to its being based on a full, multi-perspective series condensed into one season, there are barely any of the superfluous scenes we’ve come to know and hate in these streaming shows released all at once. Bridgerton is probably the first bingeable series that didn’t feel needlessly stretched out! Where other writers would have made Daphne- and Simon’s courtship last an entire season, we got to witness their union halfway through, leaving plenty of time for its struggles (and Daphne’s arguably rapey behavior) and for other characters’ arcs.

My biggest complaint would have to be that those two main leads, Daphne and Simon, are played by lovely, attractive actors, who have lovely, steamy chemistry – and absolutely no charisma. And like discount Sophie Turner and Donald Glover, I suspect that Marina Thompson, the pregnant Cinderella character next door, was supposed to be much more charming than the actor portrayed her.

COMPARED TO DICKINSON

Bridgerton made me think of another streaming show, released long before the pandemic: Dickinson, Apple TV+’s millennial literary fever dream ostensibly about the poet. (Season 2 premieres later this week.)

The two shows are rather similar.

Both offer anachronistic tellings of 19th century gentility. Both use modern music. Dickinson also uses modern language and slang.

Both offer some race discourse – Dickinson with an Othello storyline, Bridgerton with nobility played by actors of color (in what I originally assumed was colorblind casting, but then they went and made some idiotic in-universe explanation for it that doesn’t add up AT ALL).

Both have heavy handed attempts at ra-ra feminism that get somewhat tedious.

Both have gay plotlines, though Dickinson is notably gayer. (In our times? Why can Bridgerton have raunchy sex and interracial relationships but then the brother couldn’t even be gay, it had to be his artiste friend??)

From my point of view, Bridgerton was a lot more fun because it had so much plot. But where Dickinson suffered from stretching its content to fit ten episodes, it certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of personality.

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that Hailee Steinfeld has charisma for days. She was literally nominated for an Oscar for it.

PITTING WOMEN AGAINST WOMEN

While I enjoyed Bridgerton more on the whole, I find that my admiration lies with Dickinson.

Bridgerton is what happens when you’re having fun with a sexy story. It feels like I’m being given something easy. It’s a slam-dunk. It gives women pure, unadulterated, unashamed romance, with all the bodice ripping I could ask for.

Dickinson is what happens when you’re taking it more seriously, trying to tell a story that hasn’t been told before. It feels harder. It feels like what happens when the creators don’t subscribe to the notion that female stories HAVE to be something. They decided to make a kooky, anachronistic show because it served the story – not because they were serving the audience.

Neither is better – but when it comes to telling men’s stories, it feels like they’re a dime a dozen. They get old and new alike. I want that for women’s stories, too: the comforting, familiar stories, as well as the stories that challenge us to try something different.

I just wish I’d liked Dickinson more.