In the summer of 2018, proud citizens of Romancelandia (a.k.a. the mostly online world of romance novel enthusiasts) had reason to celebrate.
Prime-time queen Shonda Rhimes announced that for her first project with Netflix, she’d chosen an adaptation of a beloved regency romance novel series. It was Julia Quinn’s “Bridgerton” books, about the fictional Bridgerton family, a pack of siblings who navigate courtship in the early 1800s.
There are eight books in the collection, one following each of the Bridgerton children, which meant that Shondaland — Rhimes’s production company, responsible for shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” — would have plenty of material to work with.
Quinn’s readers also knew that the Bridgerton books were full of gorgeous balls and chaotic courtships, and led by a pack of strong women who find bliss despite a patriarchal society that dictates their worth in the form of dowries.
Every Quinn book has a magnetic hero; there is no shortage of dukes and viscounts who know how to kiss.
It’s all about the romance, so the kisses are important.
Now, as much of the world hunkers down for a 2020 holiday season, “Bridgerton” arrives on Christmas.
Showrunner Chris Van Dusen said in an interview that the TV series should appeal to a wide audience, beyond devoted readers of the novels. One does not have to be entrenched in Romancelandia or Jane Austen-esque regency tales to get hooked. Rhimes gave Van Dusen the “Bridgerton” books after he worked as a writer and producer on “Scandal,” and despite knowing very little about it, he fell in love.
“I took the first one home and I just devoured it. I think I read it in one night. And then book two and three,” he said. “The books — they were funny. They were emotional. They were intriguing. They were really sexy. And, you know, considering how everything was going at the time in the world, I was looking for escapism, and that’s something a lot of people are looking for now. It also presented this really interesting, unique opportunity to mix history and fantasy in what I thought was a really interesting way.”
A quick summary for those who’ve never read the “Bridgerton” books: Matriarch Violet Bridgerton wants to marry off her children, but she also wants them to find true love. Each book follows one of the Bridgertons as they bypass the most practical partnerships to find soulmates instead.
The twist is that while they do, their entire high-society world — the ton — has become obsessed with a gossip column that discloses secrets and seems to know every detail of their lives. The column is written anonymously by someone who calls herself Lady Whistledown. Who is the prolific and sometimes scathing, judgmental writer? How do they know so much about the Bridgertons, in particular? Could she be a Bridgerton herself? (”Gossip Girl” fans: You know how this works.)
Van Dusen’s take on Quinn’s stories — and the mystery — is a season of eight one-hour episodes with interwoven love stories and a diverse cast that includes Phoebe Dynevor as the eldest Bridgerton daughter, Daphne; Regé-Jean Page as her love interest, the much-desired and marriage-phobic Duke of Hastings; Ruby Barker as society newcomer Marina Thompson; and “Derry Girls” actress Nicola Coughlan as clumsy and lovable Penelope Featherington. The mysterious Lady Whistledown, who serves as the show’s narrator, is voiced by Julie Andrews.
Van Dusen said one of the most escapist parts of the show, at the moment, is its size and scope. It filmed on grand sets in England, and wrapped production before COVID-19 lockdowns. Seeing the party scenes now, Van Dusen said, makes the show even more fantastical. He spoke of one of his favorite moments in the pilot, where a central love story commences at a crowded ball. Now it seems like a dream.
“They’re just on that dance floor, with these amazing, breathtaking costumes, doing this amazingly choreographed dance underneath all these fireworks — and a lot of those fireworks are practical, so they were actually happening at the time on set — and just watching that being filmed was just so rewarding for me,” he said. “It really is this beautiful world of escape; it’s delicious and it’s steamy and it’s everything that I always wanted the show to be.”
Executive producer Betsy Beers added, “The escapism of actually seeing people touch and dance and stand close together and hug. These things now feel like a weirdly nostalgic privilege.”
This is not Shondaland’s first attempt at a glossy period drama, which is why the big Netlfix debut of “Bridgerton” is extra meaningful to Beers.
The Milton Academy grad, who’s is Rhimes’s partner in Shondaland, spent part of 2012 in Boston shooting the pilot for “Gilded Lilys,” which was to be the fictional tale of the personalities behind one of the first luxury hotels in New York. The show was not picked up by ABC, but it would have starred Blythe Danner — and there would have been costumes with corsets.
Then there was 2017′s “Still Star-Crossed,” a period piece (with more corsets) about the aftermath of “Romeo and Juliet.” The show was canceled after a season. Beers said “Bridgerton” has the best of what period shows have to offer, which can be a new lens on issues that are still relevant.
“I’ve always been a fan of period shows because people can absorb messages in a different way when the pressure of being in the current day is taken off,” she said. “When you see something in a different time period, you can, somewhere in the back of your head, make it relate [to now]. There was something about, with ‘Gilded Lilys’ and ‘Still Star-Crossed,’ they all sort of focus on how people deal with the restrictions of social order.”
That’s another theme in “Bridgerton,” Van Dusen agreed. It’s about matriarchs and their children, transcending limitations.
Van Dusen said, of the women characters, “They have their corsets, and they’re literally tied into their clothes, and they yearn to bust out of them just as much as they yearn to bust out of their lives, just as women do today. It’s really exploring the female plight and looking at women at all stages of their lives and how they’ve been strategizing to assert themselves and find their agency, really, for centuries.”
Asked about the lack of constraints on Netflix compared with ABC, where Shondaland shows have aired until now, Beers laughed, acknowledging that there are opportunities for romance that weren’t there before.
Now Shondaland fans can see more of what happens in the bedroom — and beyond. A scene in the “Bridgerton” pilot, outdoors, against a tree, comes to mind.
“I turned into a little bit of a prude,” Beers said. “I’m so used to years and years of, you know, showing as much as we could, so people would know what was going on, but leaving a lot to the imagination.”
Beers said that in “Bridgerton,” the imagination can still do plenty, but that producers are “reveling in the fact that we could be more sort of open and joyous in the expression of passion.”
Romancelandia fans no doubt will agree.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein@Globe.com.