Why Bridgerton Is Not Just A Downton Clone

Despite many similarities, Bridgerton and Downton Abbey are very different shows that both struggle with their presentation of progressive ideas.

Netflix’s new Regency-era romance, Bridgerton, is far from being a clone of Downton Abbey. Bridgerton, which is based on a series of romance novels by Julia Quinn, was likely never meant to resemble Julian Fellowes’ hit show, but comparisons between the two shows were being drawn before Bridgerton even premiered. Bridgerton initially appeared to hit a lot of the same beats that would appeal to Downton Abbey’s fanbase – it is, after all, a scandal-centric period drama centered on a wealthy family with adult daughters who find themselves caught between their duty to marry for money and desire to marry for love. But the shows quickly diverge on several points.

Downton Abbey presented a whitewashed version of early 20th century England, where issues of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation were acknowledged, but neither historically accurate nor sincerely examined through a 21st-century lens. All of Downton Abbey’s protagonists expressed progressive views for the 1910s, which is understandable since Downton Abbey arguably had a responsibility to update outdated ideas or present them in a way that made it clear they were wrong. However, there was nothing truly radical about Downton Abbey in its presentation and ideas, whereas Bridgerton is a period drama like we’ve never seen.

First and foremost, Bridgerton’s leading man, Simon Hastings, is portrayed by Regé-Jean Page, a biracial British-Zimbabwean actor – and he’s not the only person of color who stars in Bridgerton. Especially compared with Downton Abbey (whose own director brushed off the topic by saying that Britain was not multicultural in 1920), Bridgerton’s cast is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has long featured people of color exclusively in service roles or erased them completely. But, of course, that’s not the only thing about Bridgerton that is a far cry from Downton Abbey.

Bridgerton’s approach to the topic of sex has the internet buzzing with both excitement and disappointment. While Downton Abbey featured plotlines that revolved around scandals of a sexual nature, it never depicted the act and all conversations related to the topic were prim, proper, and necessarily vague to maintain its PG rating. On the other hand, Bridgerton shows its young and innocent characters struggle to understand what sex is and how it works in a way that, 200 years later, is unfortunately still relatable.

But after the first 5 episodes of the show set up the expectation that Bridgerton will maintain a progressive and sex-positive approach, it’s even more disappointing when the 6th episode depicts an act of sexual violence yet doesn’t treat it as such. On that point, it’s arguable that Downton Abbey did a better job. After Mr. Green sexually assaults Anna in Downton Abbey season 4, episode 3, the show delicately handles Anna in her traumatized state, with Mrs. Hughes (and, eventually, Mary Crawley and Mr. Bates) recognizing her pain and assuring her that she is not at fault. Bridgerton barely pauses to wonder whether the actions taken by a character in episode 6 were wrong.

Downton Abbey and Bridgerton are inarguably quite different shows. Ultimately, that’s not a problem – in fact, it’s a good thing. Bridgerton doesn’t try to mimic Downton Abbey and is likely better for it. While there is certainly an overlap between Downton Abbey and Bridgerton in the level of drama, the stakes that the characters face (with frequent exclamations of, “I shall be ruined!”), and the English setting, the shows take place a century and a world apart.

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