For comedy to work, it has to be taken seriously
Social satire, comedy and period drama are hardly easy genres. Combined, they can be even more challenging. For comedy to work, it has to be taken seriously, especially when it deals with the specific mores of the upper class.
In Bridgerton, there is a bizarre, yet sure line drawn across these parameters. Show runner Shonda Rhimes knows her audience well. This carried her through Grey’s Anatomy with the ease of a surgical knife. Her latest series is a bit amateurish in its desire to outdo convention. It is in danger of falling victim to its own ambition as it descends deliberately into genre (crazy operetta/period drama), where it is easy to fall on one’s face with all the fancy lighting and impractical ball gowns. But it lives up to its borrowed promise from Julia Quinn’s novel and the glamour of Downton Abbey. The subject is not entirely original, centring around the now-clichéd trope of a charade turning into real love in a rom-com. But where other shows try to avoid the cabaret style that might not mix well with the stale vintage aesthetic of period dramas, Rhimes inhabits it fully. The camera movement is very fluid, especially in the ballroom scenes; one feels like the characters are dancing with the camera.
If Bridgerton has not come out of the past, it has also not given in to nostalgia. In today’s world, nostalgia won’t cut it. Bridgerton illustrates this change on TV, specifically on streaming services, by portraying a black Queen of England. Period drama, like a good craftsman, loves well-worn wood. But after enough planning, it’s time to ditch the board altogether. A rougher diamond is more catching to the eye in the glossy world of social media and perfectly curated identities. It is from these defects that the possibility of virtuosity, and of improvisation, is born. Bridgerton breaks with convention admirably; it just chooses the right tools for it. This creates a series so sure of itself that it doesn’t withhold or leave room for thought.
The show’s popularity in Pakistan, which shares an intimate history with the Victorian era through its colonial past, is alluring. Pakistan’s Netflix-watching demographic finds entertainment value in the marriage constraints on women; a majority of our community live that truth. We insist on “decolonising ourselves”, yet we willfully ignore our colonised pasts. We discriminate in our own circles against those from other circles, ethnicities and genders, yet we love to rally behind “inclusive” shows. We disdain cookie-cutter dramas, but we make some pretty good ones ourselves. Take any local TV show, and you will find Pakistani realism being reinvented over and over. They invite us to savour the bitterness of the marriage market, the cadre of rishta-aunties that come bearing gifts for the marriage prospect until her honour is “tattered”.
Perhaps because it is so close to home, Bridgerton offers an escape into a similar situation through the lens of comedy and hyper-realism. Meanwhile, we are more capable of filming a scene for its bleakness. While Hum TV directors will shoot a bedroom scene to show the disconnect within a family, Bridgerton shoots scenes in a lawn, in the library and in the rain to show intimacy.
This paradox is emphasised in the climactic encounter between Daphne and the Duke in which she manipulates him into impregnating her. A simple overhead shot asserts her dominance in the domestic sphere. This shot conditions the change in viewpoint from the collective to the individual. Where a lesser production may have used a lateral tracking shot for the survey of the room, which would move from Daphne to her potential suitors, here we see all of them rolled into one. The entire ballroom is viewed from Daphne’s vantage point, since she is the one terrified into chaos by a society that directs the course of her life. A single shot provides the combined effect of several close-ups, representing Daphne’s struggle against the force of societal expectations. When necessary, the directors will also use a series of rapid close-ups. The camera circles the room, showing the reactions of Daphne’s suitors to her entrance. One experiences the giddiness of the heroine in these movements.
This technique does sterilise the entire production. Due to the multiplicity of its subjects, the arc of a single individual becomes forgettable. There is a garish immediacy to the show that seems to be symptomatic of a feature film being stretched to fit an eight-episode series. The rapid succession of shots and the lack of a single close-up outside of the ballroom make it all too easy for the viewer to peruse the object, and not necessarily stay with a single scene. Bridgerton doesn’t stay however, it glides.
The writer is a student of history and comparative literature at LUMS