You know the “Bridgerton” formula even if you’ve never seen a single frame. It goes like this: A naive aristocratic beauty starts off despising the man who will be her partner (and the societal games she’s forced to play) but eventually finds love despite it all, squeezing genuine connection out of a crushing system.
The wildly popular Shonda Rhimes series (based on the novels by Julia Quinn) offers sumptuous escapism set in a moderately post-racial version of Regency London. There are usually some halfhearted critiques of the “marriage market” and how a shadowy gossip columnist who goes by “Lady Whistledown” can tank or elevate certain people’s marital prospects, but these are more gestural than substantive.
This is not a show that wants to tear it all down. Conformity in “Bridgerton” usually ends up feeling really (really) good.
The pitch for a prequel felt like conformity of a different kind; Conformity is, after all, in vogue. Our screens are flooded right now with flabby prequels, so news that one was in the works about Queen Charlotte - a character invented for the Netflix series, based on the historical wife of “Mad” King George III - gave me pause. How was a sexy comedy of manners organised around happy endings and aristocratic beefcakes going to handle a story about a marriage that has (to all appearances) ended in lonely opulence and madness?
I’m pleased and surprised to report that while “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” isn’t perfect, the limited spinoff streaming now on Netflix is more interesting - and less derivative - than I expected.
It breaks with the franchise’s feel-good pattern, for one thing. On “Queen Charlotte,” which is mostly written or co-written by Rhimes, conformity feels really (really) bad. The show also breaks with the original series’ intensive focus on a particular social “season” filled with balls and other courtship rituals, instead zooming out in time to look at how several older characters - particularly Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and of course Charlotte herself (Golda Rosheuval) - dealt with their own obstacles and marriages as young women.
The six-episode prequel focuses mainly on how Charlotte (India Amarteifio), a pragmatic, unpretentious 17-year-old, navigated her marriage to King George III (Corey Mylchreest) and eventually became the ornately coiffured royal who presides with queenly hauteur and palpable loneliness over the goings-on of the “Ton,” a term referring to the British upper crust. It explores her role as a pioneer in - and guarantor of - the “Great Experiment” that granted many Black residents of the Ton titles and membership in the aristocracy. (“Queen Charlotte” doesn’t entirely succeed at supplying a plausible rationale for the racial diversity of its nobles, but it makes a worthy attempt.)
The setup is simple and not very different from the “Bridgerton” plots: Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, an eligible lady, is informed by her brother Adolphus (Tunji Kasim) that he is marrying her off to the king. Charlotte is unhappy about the arrangement and senses that something is off. “There is reason they wanted me, a stranger,” she says. “And it cannot be a good reason.” She finally agrees to do her duty to her family (by abandoning it forever to go live with strangers), arrives mere hours before her wedding is supposed to take place and freaks out. A meet-cute between herself and George ensues, however, and they marry.
And then things go south.
“Queen Charlotte” finds its rhythm when it realises it can be the flip side of the show it’s riffing on. For every happy ending “Bridgerton” supplies, the prequel features a marriage rooted in suffering, revulsion or endurance. And for every benighted social rule the older women of the series try to enforce against the plucky young people we reflexively sympathise with, the prequel supplies a history that recasts the latter’s pleas for personal agency, freedom and love as romantic twaddle and absolutely wild entitlement - the equivalent of complaining about your dessert to someone who’s starving.
It’s not always a bummer. But perspectives that seem blinkered at best and calculating at worst in the original series - usually attributed to these older women - become grimly legible because of their backstories.
“We mothers and aunts and leaders of the Ton, we spend our time endlessly matchmaking, talking of wooing, of love, of romance,” the older version of Lady Danbury tells Violet at one point, “but never for anyone mature enough to truly understand what any of it means. What it is to go without it. What it is to lose it. We are full of gossip and story, but as women, we are never the topics of the conversation. Lady Whistledown never writes of our hearts. We are untold stories.”
“Queen Charlotte” solves this by reintroducing us to those characters when they are still young, beautiful and hoping for romance. The series also dips into the Regency timeline we know (where some, including Queen Charlotte herself, are still trying to marry their kids off).
That shuttling between past and present can, if you think about it too much, reframe the entire “Bridgerton” universe, which has mostly tilted inexorably toward the future. The past is trickier. And darker. Arsema Thomas is exquisite as an embattled and trapped young Lady Danbury; some scenes showcasing her married life are tough to watch. And I don’t even know what to say about the exploration of King George III’s madness; his efforts to get “well” in the name of love are not romantic in the conventional sense, amounting to psychic (and literal) torture. But they are tragic demonstrations of devotion.
The show is also less charmed by gossip than the original series; it’s at least partly about how (and whether) female friendships can develop in a poisoned atmosphere where everyone schemes, and where racial tensions in particular are managed through savage “courtesy,” threats and even bribes in exchange for reports on Queen Charlotte’s activities. These are love stories too, in their way.
I do have notes! “Queen Charlotte” is billed as a limited series and if that’s the case, I have concerns about the ending, which fails to resolve some major and heartbreaking conflicts, particularly one sparked by the death of a child. The treatment of Charlotte, a real person in a fictional universe, is so confidently ahistoric (sweeping aside, among other things, that she and George were married for 25 years or so before his mental troubles arose). And the “Regency” part of the Regency romance (so named because the Prince Regent was technically ruling) gets entirely stripped out; in fact, when George IV finally does appear in the Bridgerton universe - via “Queen Charlotte” - it’s strangely disappointing.
“Queen Charlotte” does loneliness - and loss - beautifully. And while the series doesn’t show all the steps that led Charlotte to eventually dress and behave the way she does in “Bridgerton,” the gap it doesn’t fill is generative. You can guess how she got there and that feels better, in this instance, than having it all spelled out.
Don’t Miss It!
‘Queen Charlotte’ is streaming on Netflix now