RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A lot of us are looking for an escape right now, right? And even though it's tough to get on a plane, you can get into a time machine called Netflix and get transported to a completely different world called "Bridgerton."
The show takes place in 1800s-era England. There are all these amazing costumes that come with a period drama. There is mystery and manipulation, and there is romance. My friends, there is so much romance. And viewers are way into this, so much so that Netflix says the show is one of its most successful series ever. And in its first month, roughly 63 million households are expected to fix their gaze on Daphne and the duke and all the other characters who weave this story together.
But this is not just a fun romp through romantic travails. The show says something important about race and whose stories are told and how. So to talk about all this, we've brought together Aisha Harris, pop culture critic and co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, as well as NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
Hey, you guys. Thanks for being here.
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel. Thank you.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, thanks for having us.
MARTIN: OK. So Eric, Aisha, we've got romance. And we've got Shonda Rhimes, who is very good at entertainment. What's not to love about this show?
HARRIS: Well, I know Eric is not a huge romance person, and I'm not either. But I do think that Shonda Rhimes is one of the biggest names in television. People are going to be naturally curious about this. The show was created by Chris Van Dusen, who is basically a Shonda Rhimes protege, has worked on previous shows of hers like "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal." And so even though she is not the actual creator of the show, she has all of her - like, her DNA is flowing through it. And I think that - it's just kind of perfect to see this "Gossip Girl" type of show set in Regency-era London with lots of nudity and romance. It's like - it's just the perfect combination and something that she wouldn't necessarily be able to do on network TV.
DEGGANS: OK. So I have to say, I am romance-challenged. That is the phrase that I use.
HARRIS: That's the correct term.
DEGGANS: But romance seems to be an underserved community on television. You know, Aisha and I were trying to think of the series that might be available to people besides "Bridgerton," and we came up with, like, "Outlander" on Starz and shows on the Hallmark Channel.
DEGGANS: So, you know, there's not a lot out there. And I think it's also a signal to the industry that this is an underserved community and maybe they ought to be creating more shows to speak to them.
MARTIN: So Shonda Rhimes has really made a name for herself for being a creative genius, but also for really prioritizing diversity in her casting. And I mean, we see this in "Bridgerton." Right? And a lot of people have talked about how it's really significant. It's important to see Black people included, in this show, among British aristocracy. But..
MARTIN: ...You have both said the show's take on race is absolutely more complex than that. Can you talk a little bit about how you see it?
DEGGANS: Sure. So when you look at "Bridgerton," you see several key characters, including members of the aristocracy, are people of color. They're not white. But there also seems to be this unacknowledged hierarchy to the people of color. A lot of the key characters and people who have the most status are light-skinned black people. Arguably, the show's biggest villain, the Duke of Hastings' abusive father, is one of the darkest actors on the show. And the show seems ambivalent about race. You know, while a lot of the characters don't talk about race that much and seem to act as if race doesn't matter, there is this moment where the Duke of Hastings, who's the, you know, most eligible bachelor in this era - he's a person of color. He's talking to the woman who raised him. Her name is Lady Danbury. She's a woman of color as well. And their discussion kind of explains why we're seeing Black people in the aristocracy in this world. Let's check it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")
ADJOA ANDOH: (As Lady Danbury) We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us. Love, Your Grace, conquers all.
MARTIN: Ah, were it that simple. I mean...
HARRIS: Yeah. I really do wish that they had done a little bit more probing into that monologue and extended it 'cause that's really the only time we see it mentioned. And that actually doesn't come until four episodes into the first season. And so while I was watching it at first, I thought, OK, the first few episodes, I guess we're just going to make this a fantasy. That's fine. We won't acknowledge that there could be a racial hierarchy at play here.
And then when that monologue comes in, I'm just like, ugh, I wish they'd just left it alone or explored it more. There could have been a very fun way to discuss these things. And I think the show does a really good job of talking about class and women and the way in which they are really trying hard to improve their station in life through marriage. But it really falters when it comes to race.
MARTIN: Yeah. So we started off talking about how, Eric, you are a romance skeptic. And again...
DEGGANS: Romance-challenged is (unintelligible)...
DEGGANS: ...How I put it.
MARTIN: I want to praise you for being open with that. But nevertheless, this is a romance through and through, and it's been super successful. Does this mean that if we think of romance as a genre, that it's going to get more - I don't know - attention, that it's going to be really successful? Because it's been, I mean, fairly dismissed as a frivolous pursuit by, you know, those in the entertainment industry.
DEGGANS: Yeah. I think success begets copycatting. And you - between the success of "Bridgerton" and the success that we've seen of the Hallmark brand - and Lifetime has also tried to create movies in that vein, especially during the holidays - yeah. I think the industry's gotten the message. What do you think, Aisha?
HARRIS: I absolutely agree. And I think that, also, you know, we've had some of the biggest hits of the last - movie hits - of the last 10, 15 years have been romances, whether you have "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades Of Grey." And now we're seeing that move to the TV sphere. And I think it's really interesting to watch because I do think some of that comes from the Tumblr generation, the fact that blogging, there are so many romance novel enthusiasts who have been able to blog and write about these things and take it more seriously from a critical perspective. And so I think we're seeing more critics who are willing to not just dismiss a show like "Bridgerton" out of hand, who are writing really thoughtful pieces about the way in which it portrays sex and race and gender and all of these things. And so it's never going to be on the level of Marvel or any of those other franchises. But I do think that that doesn't matter. There's enough people who are taking it seriously, both, you know, in - within Hollywood and then also within writing about it, that I think that it's probably here to stay for quite some time.
MARTIN: Aisha Harris with NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans here.
Hey, you guys, thank you so much.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRIS BOWERS' "FLAWLESS MY DEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.