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'Bridgerton' review: Think  'Gossip Girl' set in Regency England

Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton in Netflix's "Bridgerton."

Phoebe Dynevor as Daphne Bridgerton in Netflix's "Bridgerton."  Credit: NETFLIX/LIAM DANIEL

SERIES "Bridgerton"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Shonda Rhimes comes out with a period piece for her first scripted Netflix show in "Bridgerton," an eight-part adaptation of Julia Quinn's series of romance novels set during the United Kingdom's Regency era in the early part of the 19th century.

It's a lavish costume drama in which beautiful high society London people engage in romantic entanglements and scheme and backstab, all the while being enraptured by the writings of a mysterious Lady Whistledown (the voice of Julie Andrews), who documents it all in a gossip pamphlet.

The focus lies around the Bridgerton family, and specifically daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who forms a friendship with the Duke Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) as she is pursued by suitors.

"Bridgerton," created by Chris Van Dusen and emanating from the "Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" icon's Shondaland, begins streaming on Christmas Day.

MY SAY You already know if you're the target audience for what Rhimes and her team have to offer here: fans of, say, Jane Austen adaptations will find a lot to admire in this offshoot, with its decidedly modern take on romance in Georgian England.

Based on a screening of the first three episodes, "Bridgerton" has all the touches one might hope for, with no expense spared: the estates are resplendent, the actors elaborately dressed, the galas big and carefree, the smoldering glances never less than sexy. The camera soaks it all in with wide shots that present a portrait of unvarnished luxury.

The actors communicate the tone successfully, saying every line with a gleam in the eye and a song in the heart. Having Andrews serve as the narrator stands as something of a coup as well, as she lends an aura of playful naughtiness to the shenanigans.

In other ways, the "Bridgerton" team makes it clear that this isn't your garden variety, stuffy period piece. The score co-opts Maroon 5's "Girls Like You," among other pop hits, turning them into instrumentals that at once establish the veneer of classicism while serving as points of recognition for an audience that might not be accustomed to historical entertainment.

Then there's the Lady Whistledown concept itself, with its obvious "Gossip Girl" parallels, and the fact that the show overall seems to owe as big of a debt to that series' depiction of a very different sort of high-society universe and the trashy drama that came with it.

All of that is welcome and accessible, but there is a persistent sense throughout the first hours of "Bridgerton" that none of it really matters much. The show is so persistently lightweight that the consequences of the hubbub over Daphne Bridgerton's future do not seem to be of particular significance.

Because they are so pretty, and dressed in such immaculate finery, the characters seem to be posing in tableaux rather than actually occupying the world they inhabit. The more dramatic moments, including those that allude to darker themes about classist mistreatment and patriarchal abuses, don't land. They seem to have been tacked on in order to provide a veneer of seriousness over what is essentially an extended steamy romance novel.

Filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola, in her masterful "Marie Antoinette," have unlocked a methodology for having this sort of thing both ways. But whereas in her depiction of Versailles the stylistic excess became the defining element, "Bridgerton" does not demonstrate a clear grasp of the bigger story.

BOTTOM LINE: This is a handsome, lavish romance that will appeal to a large audience, but it's also painstakingly insubstantial.

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