Bridgerton: Heres How Chris Van Dusen Concocted a Thirsty and Relevant Romance

Shonda Rhimes and writer-turned-showrunner Chris Van Dusen go back 17 years, to his first job as her assistant just out of USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program. He soon transitioned to a writer on “Grey’s Anatomy” and was executive story editor of “Scandal” before taking on “Bridgerton,” Shondaland and Van Dusen’s first scripted series at Netflix, where Rhimes has a rich TV deal. Those years built a valuable shorthand for their shared sensibilities that came in handy on “Bridgerton,” Netflix’s most-watched show ever — 82 million households watched in its first 28 days, per the streamer’s own unconfirmed reports — which yielded 12 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series.

Rhimes cheered on Van Dusen’s vision of a new slant on the period romance. “From the beginning, she gave me the creative room and freedom to make the period show I’ve always wanted to see,” said Van Dusen on the phone. “I never wanted it to feel like a typical period piece. It was inspired by eight delicious romance novels.”

Van Dusen not only saw a commercial series in Julia Quinn’s “Bridgerton” books — which each focus on a different Bridgerton offspring, starting with eldest sister Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) — but the opportunity to disrupt the hidebound conventions of the Regency Romance popularized by such writers as literary influencer Jane Austen (“Emma”) and 20th-century bestsellers Georgette Heyer (“Regency Buck”) and Barbara Cartland (“The Wicked Marquis”). Set in the early 19th-century British Regency period, these costume romances feature anxious parents trying to marry off their empire-waisted daughters to a tony man of property (preferably not a grey-eyed rake with gambling debts) via a string of glittery London balls and cotillions. (Back then, “coming out” carried a very different connotation from today’s world.)

The “Bridgerton” novels fit the mold. “They had every element I always look for in a project,” said Van Dusen. “They were funny, emotional, sexy, and escapist. I was coming off writing ‘Scandal,’ and I wanted something far away from modern-day political intrigue on Capitol Hill. 19th-century Regency London had sets, costumes, and rules of society. It was rife with conflict over what was considered traditional and conservative. It got me excited, adapting these novels for Netflix. I always wanted to make a period show with a fascinating intersection of history and fantasy.”


Golda Rosheuvel in “Bridgerton”

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History provided Van Dusen with a radical departure from convention: Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). While seeking “to find a way to inject race into the traditional lily-white world of the period piece,” he said, “I wanted a contemporary sensibility for the way we told the story, the characters, the acting, and the way the show looked. We created the character of Queen Charlotte, who wasn’t part of the books. She was original to the world of the show. She existed. Historians have seen Charlotte as being the first queen of color. That resonated with me. When she came into focus it all started to fit. Her introduction allowed us to explore things like race, which was not in the books either.”

Introducing the Queen provided an explanation for the show’s approach to race, because she used her power to elevate other people of color in society, granting titles, lands, and dukedoms. Both influencer Lady Danbury (Adjoah Andoh) and Simon Basset, the dashing Duke of Hastings (Emmy nominee Regé-Jean Page) came to live as members of Black nobility. “The approach to race on the show goes beyond mere representation,” said Van Dusen. “It’s part of the text of the show and Simon’s journey of the show: His father instilled in him having to be twice as good as everyone, perfect.”


“Bridgerton” love scene.

Netflix

The series also embraces anachronistic behavior. Most dukes did not sashay around the house and sit down to breakfast in front of the servants with their bare chests on display. As Hastings, Page shows off his rippled torso every chance he gets. “We watched all the period pieces, including the 1995 ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with Colin Firth coming out of the lake in that wet white shirt,” said Van Dusen. “That moment really worked, but at the same time, it didn’t go far enough for me. Our period piece went further, pushed boundaries, and challenged the very idea of what a period piece could possibly be.”

Van Dusen didn’t write all eight Season 1 episodes himself. As showrunner, he ran the writers’ room, a stable of eight men and women that met in a production office every day, trying to dream up sexy moments. (During lockdown, the virtual writers room assembled on Zoom to write Season 2.)

“We had some of the most amazing fun times coming up with thirsty moments,” said Van Dusen, “like when the Duke licked the spoon in Episode 3. We thought about how to make it relevant today, and how this glamorous lavish escapist world was a running modern commentary on the last 20 years. Everything has changed and nothing has changed for women and men. We watch the show and forget it’s set 200 years in the past, with no cell phones, no bathrooms, and everyone in a corset. The job as a group in the room was to figure out how to look at and explore love and loss, family and identity, class, sexuality, and race, and still have it be about the romance at the end of the day.”


“Bridgerton”

LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

The other key ingredient was the narrator (voiced by Emmy nominee Julie Andrews), Quinn’s mysterious gossip writer Lady Whistledown, whose identity is finally uncovered in Episode 8 (though not in Quinn’s first book). “There were many gossip columnists at the time,” said Van Dusen. “The idea of society and culture coming into play was fascinating in the writers’ room. We worked to find those modern touchstones. Lady Whistledown was a one-woman Regency tabloid. She reflects how tabloids and social media make shifts in public opinion today: the power of the written word.”

Casting was crucial for the two antagonistic leads at the center of the plot, who start out making a business pact to pretend to be courting in order to make each other look good in public, and then fall in love and get married. “I knew we had something with Regé and Phoebe when we brought them in for a chemistry read,” said Van Dusen. “They read a scene together in Episode 3 standing in front of Simon’s mother’s painting, as their hands graze their fingers. There was something so electric and palatable with the two of them together.”

But it was while watching Emmy-nominated Julie Anne Robinson (one of three women out of four directors) helm the pilot from video village that Van Dusen started to feel secure that they were onto something. “After Simon and Daphne make their plan for this ruse, they come to an agreement to pretend-fake this courtship, they walk out into the middle of the ball as they do their dance,” he said. “At that moment you start to see that they have real feelings for each other. On set watching them, surrounded by all the supporting artists and a sea of fireworks at 5 a.m. in the middle of the countryside, I got chills. I’ve seen it a thousand times by now, but I still get chills every time I watch it.”

Clearly, costumes were key for a period romance. Van Dusen hit it off with Emmy-winning costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (“Behind the Candelabra”) who is up for her second Emmy for her bright-palette period update. “I wanted a freshness to things, a youthfulness, an effervescence,” said Van Dusen, who enforced a no-bonnet policy, “and at the same time still be rooted in Regency London of the time, with the volume turned up.”


Claudia Jessie and Nicola Coughlin in “Bridgerton.”

LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

What’s Next

Season 2 is halfway through production in London, with Van Dusen flying back and forth from the editing room in Los Angeles. “The whole idea of the series is every season has a different love story,” he said, “first Samson and Daphne, then Anthony’s love story.”

Hence the departure of Page is no great loss. “Regé played his part, people can go back and watch Season 1 as many times as they’d like. He charmed the world, and he’ll go on charming the world. He’s always going to be ‘Bridgerton’s’ Duke. It’s refreshing being able to focus on a new love story and new characters every season. Anthony and his new love interest Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) are such a force to be reckoned with: magnetic, you cannot take your eyes off them when they’re together.”

And the new season will explore the repercussions of the big reveal of Lady Whistledown’s identity: what being a gossip monger means, said Van Dusen, “how Penelope [Nicola Coughlin] works as Lady Whistledown in this world, how the sausage gets made. It opens up her world and inner life in amazing ways.”

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