Unlike most people, it seems, I am not familiar with Netflix’s famously diverse “Bridgerton” series from 2020. I have not seen a single second of the show, nor have I read a single word of a single one of Julia Quinn’s books on which the immensely popular show is based. Paradoxically, I’m inclined to believe that this lack of knowledge is a good thing, because it allows me to evaluate the prequel series “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” also from Netflix, on its own merits. Happily, it seems— based at least on its pilot episode— you don’t need any prior “Bridgerton” knowledge to enjoy its new televisual iteration. And more to the point, the current show is actually pretty good.
Courtesy of Netflix
“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” begins with a narration by town gossip Lady Whistledown (played, offscreen, by film and theater legend Julie Andrews). She reminds the audience that although the narrative is based on historical facts, it is still largely a work of fiction. (It is about as elegantly sardonic a disclaimer as you could hope for— the equivalent of someone admonishing all the outraged right-wing conservatives to calm the hell down— and it sets the tone perfectly for the story to come.)
We find ourselves in the 18th century, in a Europe much like the one from the historical record, except for the presence of an aristocracy that is racially integrated. (Tellingly, for a “racially integrated” group, it’s still mostly white.) Against this intriguing pseudo-historical backdrop, 17-year-old Charlotte (India Amarteifio), a black aristocrat from a small town in Germany, is sent to England to marry the very white King George III (Corey Mylchreest), a man she has never seen, never met, and whom no one will say anything at all about. (Incidentally, this is the same George who will one day lose the American colonies and become the main antagonist in a staggeringly popular rap musical with similarly subversive ideas about racial equality.)
Because no one will tell her what the monarch is like, Charlotte is convinced he must be some kind of, in her words, “a troll or beast.” When she attempts to escape her wedding by climbing a garden wall, she… well, to say more would be spoiling the show’s many pleasures. Suffice it to say that there is a meet-cute, there is chemistry, there are loving looks, there is dancing, and there is romance… but there is also, it soon becomes apparent, the suggestion of something darker, lurking just beyond the surface.
I fully intended to watch just the pilot episode of “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story”: in essence, just enough of the series to write a credible review. (While I do enjoy the occasional romantic entertainment, I much prefer shows featuring explosions and occasional spin-kicks to the face.) But I must admit the show won me over with its strong female characters, wry humor, whip-smart dialogue, and vibrant production design: all trademarks of showrunner and creator Shonda Rhimes, whose creative output includes such smash small-screen hits as “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Scandal,” and, of course, “Grey’s Anatomy,” which is— amazingly— still going strong after an astonishing 18 years on the air.
Even the diversity of the actors is used to great effect here: Too often, giving non-white people “traditionally” white roles is nothing more than virtue signaling, the casting equivalent of handing out participation trophies. (“Tinkerbell is black now! Why? Uh… because we’re good people!”) In this series, the colorblind casting makes sense on a thematic level: There are black and Asian aristocrats, yes; but their presence actually means something to the characters in the story— it’s not just a bunch of producers trying desperately to be seen as “woke.” (Are you listening, Disney?)
While (for the pilot) the stakes are a bit low, and the story takes a while to get off the ground, “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” is still a pleasure to watch… which I will continue to do, right after I submit this review.
5 crowns: a must-see
4 crowns: excellent
3 crowns: good but not great
2 crowns: just about watchable
1 crown: avoid at all costs