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Shonda Rhimes Debuts A Romantic Drama, Set In 19th Century England, On Netflix

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

"Grey's Anatomy" and "Scandal" creator Shonda Rhimes debuts her first series for Netflix on Christmas Day. It's called "Bridgerton." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the series features storytelling techniques which have become hallmarks of Rhimes' style.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Shonda Rhimes has mastered the modern soap opera. So it's an interesting surprise to note that the first series her company has made for Netflix is set in the past - 1813-era London, to be precise, where an unseen gossip describes the rules for presenting debutantes to high society.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Lady Whistledown) Today is the day London's marriage-minded misses are presented to her majesty, the queen.

DEGGANS: That voice belongs to Julie Andrews, who plays Lady Whistledown, the author of a gossip-laden newsletter tracing the efforts of the city's most eligible debutantes to secure a fiance. Whistledown provides narration off camera "Gossip Girl"-style, describing an era where young women are judged by the station of the men they marry. And key to securing the best offers is approval from the queen, whose gaze is so discerning she can make less competitive debutantes faint in fear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

ANDREWS: (As Lady Whistledown) It is only the queen's eye that matters today. A glimmer of displeasure, and the young lady's value plummets to unthinkable depths.

DEGGANS: This is the kind of dramatic structure Rhimes has always mined for storytelling gold in the past - an oppressive, male-oriented system that women must subvert with smarts and determination, which brings us to...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Daphne Bridgerton, presented by her mother, the right honorable...

DEGGANS: Daphne, played with wide-eyed wonder by Phoebe Dynevor, is the eldest daughter surrounded by seven beautiful siblings and their widowed mother. She earns the queen's approval but still has trouble attracting an appropriate suitor, which could be trouble for the family. But she is approached by a young man who has vowed to never marry, the Duke of Hastings, with a curious offer - let's pretend to court each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRIDGERTON")

REGE-JEAN PAGE: (As Simon Basset) Every presumptuous mother in town would leave me alone, and every suitor would be looking at you. You must know men are always interested in a woman when they believe another, to be a duke (ph), to be interested as well.

PHOEBE DYNEVOR: (As Daphne Bridgerton) You presume...

PAGE: (As Simon Basset) I presume surely we must be precisely what we are - me, unavailable, you, desirable.

DEGGANS: If you know anything about romance novels, you know this agreement won't exactly work the way they planned. Netflix's "Bridgerton" was adapted from a series of novels. The TV series was created by Rhimes's protege, executive producer Chris Van Dusen. Still, this show features lots of themes familiar to Rhimes fans - a character struggling with a monstrous father who creates huge daddy issues, stories showing female independence as the antidote to destructive male arrogance and diversity in casting, which is both admirable and a little confusing. The duke and his relatives are light-skinned Black people, as is the queen. The Bridgerton family is white, but the subject of race doesn't really emerge until the middle of the series' episodes, where the diversity is explained in a way that feels a little tacked on.

It's odd to see characters of color in a series where their race is rarely remarked upon and the historic oppressions of the time period don't seem to exist. It can make the characters feel a bit inauthentic, too similar to the white characters except for skin tone. Still, "Bridgerton" allows characters of color to participate in a lavish, escapist, historical fantasy of the sort previously limited to white characters in Jane Austen adaptations. As Christmas gifts go, this one from Shonda Rhimes is sure to bring a lot of pleasure for fans of romance stories and equality on TV. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DATAROCK SONG, "FA-FA-FA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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