Netflix’s Bridgerton was arguably one of the most popular shows to have come out of 2020. In a time when most of us were stuck at home, Bridgerton transported viewers to the delightful world of Regency era England. Based on the Bridgerton novel series by Julia Quinn, the first season of the show follows Daphne Bridgerton’s courtship with Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings. The show’s focus on romance and escapism won it many accolades, with special praise for its blend of classic period drama elements with a contemporary twist. Upgrading the usually sober subjects of period drama with humor, intrigue and breathtaking chemistry between its extended cast, Bridgerton embodies a new kind of romance that can be entertaining without being melodramatic.
If you loved Bridgerton’s romance and escapism as much as we did, you should check out these shows.
1. Pride and Prejudice (1995)
When it comes to works set in Victorian era England, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice retains a special place above others. It is thus no surprise that artists have adapted its story time and again. Amongst myriad adaptations, the 1995 miniseries by Andrew Davies is widely considered to be the definitive version. The story follows the Bennett sisters and the efforts of their mother to get them married, centering around the feisty heroine, Elizabeth Bennet and her love-hate equation with the rich and haughty Mr. Darcy. Period drama aficionados will surely love the expanded plot and attention to detail in the show.
With a cast of great actors, it creates a believable and immersive ambience of the nineteenth century. The chemistry between the main leads, Elizabeth and Darcy (played by Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth respectively) particularly stands out. With a wholesome plot centering on domestic affairs and evening balls, this one is sure to sweep you off your feet.
2. Outlander (2014-present)
I’m sure all of us have occasionally wondered what it would be like to have characters from the past suddenly appear in the modern world, or vice versa. One of the best TV shows streaming on Netflix right now, Outlander answers this question by means of time travel. Based on the novel series of the same name by Diana Gabaldon, the show depicts the story of Claire Randall, a nurse during World War II. When she disappears during her second honeymoon in Scotland, she is presumed dead. Unbeknownst to everyone, she has fallen through time and reappears in the 18th century.
The story blends classic elements of the period drama genre such as drama, romance, and wartime conflict. Featuring well-written characters, the narratives impart depth to their actions and motives. Claire is a particularly strong and fully realized heroine, and the story finds its anchor in her struggles. Always unrestrained, but never quite over the top, Outlander visualizes what it would be like to go back in time.
3. Downton Abbey (2010-2015)
One of the stereotypes associated with the period piece genre is that it is mostly a collection of stories about stiff British, upper-class people. Of course, that notion is very reductive. If, however, there is a smidgeon of truth to that, Downton Abbey embodies it to the fullest. An exemplar of the stairway genre, it revolves around the fictional Yorkshire County estate of the same name. The story follows the lives of the wealthy and aristocratic Crawley family, and their servants. Taking place in the post-Edwardian era, the series focuses on several crucial historical events like the Spanish Flu and the sinking of the Titanic.
Through the contrast between the lives of the wealthy landowners and their servants, the story makes a relevant point about class differences and the rigid structure of hierarchy in English society. Boasting a cast of screen giants such as Hugh Bonneville and Dame Maggie Smith, the show holds the distinction of having the most Emmy nominations of any television show in the history of the Emmy Awards.
4. Wolf Hall (2015)
Based on the novel of the same name by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall presents a sympathetic history of the life and times of one of the most powerful and notorious men in England’s history, Thomas Cromwell. In the sixteenth century, England was on the brink of disaster, as King Henry VIII was without an heir. Risking religious uproar and potential civil war, he wants to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn instead. In steps Cromwell, who manages to broker a tenuous agreement between the King and the Catholic Church. In the process, he accumulated tremendous power and risks losing his own ideals.
The show presents a new perspective on crucial historical events like the formation of the church of England. Forgoing the documentary-style narration usually adapted by the genre, Wolf Hall creates intrigue and introduces satire into the story. The result is such that even if we know the events that are about to occur, it introduces a twist to how they will occur. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Cromwell has garnered him much praise, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn remains particularly memorable.
5. Virgin River (2019-present)
Based on the novel series of the same name by Robyn Carr, Virgin River revolves around the romantic trials and tribulations of a nurse and midwife in a small town. Melissa moves to the quiet town of Virgin River from Los Angeles, thinking it would be the most appropriate place for her to start over. However, as she gets to know the residents of the town and considers settling down for good, there are lingering issues from her past she must deal with before she’s truly able to make a new life. The story and plot development make it easy for the viewers to emotionally invest in the characters, as it revolves around familiar premises of new romance, family and grief.
I found the depiction of ex-army characters like Jack, and their experience with PTSD to be a step in the right direction. If you grew up enjoying shows like Chesapeake Shores and This Is Us, Virgin River is for you.
6. This Is Us (2016-present)
One of the most diverse shows on television, This Is Us tells multiple stories all centering on one touchstone: family. Revolving around the lives of the extended Pearson family, it showcases two journeys. The Big Three — siblings Kevin, Kate and Randall Pearson — deal with ups and downs in their life, while being there for each other. In the same vein, a parallel story follows the lives of their parents, Jack and Rebecca Pearson in the past, exploring their experiences with parenting and raising a family.
The show’s touching and tender focus on exploring different kinds of familial bonds, and creating a narrative across time has resonated with fans. In the same vein as its predecessors such as Parenthood, the show revolves around the mundane conflicts and quirks in an extended family. It also dealt with sensitive issues like adoption, motherhood, and coping with loss. Its racially diverse cast and focus on telling emotionally relevant stories are what make the show truly stand out.
7. The Great (2020-present)
Shows about historical figures are aplenty, focusing on their legendary exploits and generally adopting a very heavy-handed tone to tell their stories. Within that genre, The Great distinguishes itself as a breath of fresh air. Not taking itself too seriously, it adopts a witty and delightfully campy tone to chronicle the rise of Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia. It follows her life as she marries Peter III, emperor of Russia, soon realizing his cruelty and plotting to dispose of him. Featuring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine and Peter respectively, the series takes a humorous and light-hearted approach to historical events.
The lead performances occasionally border on parody, adding a new level of hilarity to the events. Viewers who value historical accuracy may be disappointed, as the show prides itself on being an “occasionally true story”. However, it compensates for that with the use of high drama and satire to create a thoroughly modern understanding of complicated historical figures.
8. Sweet Magnolias (2020-present)
Based on the novel series of the same name by Sherryl Woods, Sweet Magnolias follows the lives of three best friends in a small Southern town. Maddie, Dana Sue and Helen have been lifelong friends, growing up in South Carolina. The story follows their experiences helping each other out in work, love and life as they all deal with individual issues of their own. Boasting a strong ensemble cast, the show focuses on friendship and family. It finds its emotional center in a healthy support system.
Avoiding cliches, the plot treats its leads as fully realised characters, with distinct traits and personalities. Focusing on the central storyline of three women navigating ups and downs in their personal lives, particularly divorce, the show follows in the familiar footsteps of many a television show. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however, the story excels in creating old-fashioned moments of comfort with just enough twists to keep you going.
9. Cranford (2007)
Adapted from the episodic novel by renowned English writer Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford revolves around the residents of the fictional Cranford village in Cheshire County. Gossip features heavily as the inhabitants of the village, particularly the widowed women, relish in keeping up appearances. Any deviation from the established way of doing things is viewed with scorn and disdain. The show takes a gentle and mocking approach to the adherence to propriety and gentility in the recent past. Through a colorful cast of characters such as the spinsters, the Jenkyns sisters, local gossip Octavia Pole, and the eccentric Mrs. Forester, the series presents a rich and witty vision of life in the nineteenth century.
The events of the story range from banal to downright trifling. But as the village residents mine drama and scandal from the smallest of issues, one cannot help but live vicariously through them. With a strong cast and entertaining story, Cranford is a worry-free, idyllic vision of the past. Performances by Judi Dench as one of the Jenkyns sisters and Michael Gambon particularly stand out.
10. Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975)
One of the very first examples of the stairway genre, Upstairs Downstairs revolves around the fictional Bellamy family who reside in a townhouse in London’s affluent Belgravia neighborhood. The title refers to the distinction between the wealthy tenants and their domestic servants, who occupy the lower portion of the house. The show balances a sensitive exploration of class distinctions with commentary on social and historical landmarks of the early 20th century. The characters of the servants are well-written, with a focus on giving them dignity and agency. The subject of class hierarchy and the fading power of the aristocracy is explored through their interactions with the Bellamy family, with nuance and a critical eye for cultural observations.
The show was rather progressive in its treatment of various subjects that would have been considered nearly taboo for the time it was set in. Sensitive subjects like divorce, unwed pregnancies, illicit affairs and homosexuality are commendably handled.
11. Howards End (2017-2018)
Based on E.M Forster’s book of the same name, Howards End follows the lives of three families — the working class Basts, the intellectual-minded Schlegels and the businessmen Wilcoxes. As various members from the families cross paths, the story delves into the cultural shifts taking place during the turn of the century. In the center of these events are Margaret and Henry, two thoroughly different individuals who are drawn together through their shared connection to the titular estate, Howards End. The chemistry between the leading pair of Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen is utterly beguiling.
The story delves into various subjects like class prejudices and biases against women. In the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, the viewer is provided with two role models who were women way ahead of their time. Exemplifying the charm of the English countryside with lush locales and delightful cinematography, Howards End is an immersive watch that will draw you in the intrigues of its three families.
12. Gentleman Jack (2019-present)
Queer individuals are noticeably absent from many forms of heteronormative media in general, and historical dramas in particular. Often, the excuse provided is that queerness is a modern phenomenon. Gentleman Jack seeks to rectify that with its portrayal of Anne Lister, a landowning industrialist in Yorkshire during the early nineteenth century. In a time and place that was not very conducive to women who didn’t adhere to social conventions, Lister did what she wanted to and pursued same-sex relationships with many women.
Often credited as the first modern lesbian, Lister’s life and times are chronicled with humor, understanding and compassion in the show. By centering the heroine’s experiences, director and writer Sally Wainwright avoids the many pitfalls that befall queer women such as the male gaze, queerbaiting, etc. Thoroughly entertaining, witty and informative, I recommend the show for its depiction of the history of queerness through real individuals.
The light-hearted romance and intrigue of Bridgerton was significantly responsible for its widespread acclaim. Upgrading romance and drama with layers of wit and satire brought a new lease of life to the genre. In times like these, one often feels the need to escape into a realm of amusement and harmless fun. Shows like the above promise us a respite from the exhaustion of real-life, creating catharsis via a fictional happily-ever-after. Here we are, then! Twelve peak comfort-viewing shows that emulate the pastel pleasures of Bridgerton. Which of these are you the most excited about? Let’s talk in the comments below!
An avid reader and a life-long lover of blue skies, I like to spend my time with obscure poetry and dissecting films. Currently besotted with Maupassant, art history and all things Nolan, you can find me spacing out to Queen while I look for new things to obsess with.