After owning Thursday night on ABC, “Grey’s Anatomy” producer Shonda Rhimes’ first series under her Netflix deal should feel like an occasion. As opening bids go, however, “Bridgerton” plays a weak hand, turning Julia Quinn’s novels about a 19th-century London family into a handsome but tedious snooze — think “Masterpiece Theater,” only with more sex and nudity.
The eight-episode season follows the extended travails of the titular Bridgerton family, primarily through eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), who has reached the age where marriage and finding a worthy suitor are of paramount concern.
With her prospects threatened by scandal, she enters into a bargain with the highly eligible and outwardly dashing Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a friend of Daphne’s brother, who is determined to remain a bachelor but willing to participate in a charade in order to make her more desirable.
Naturally, the two are in fact drawn to each other, a situation they prove reluctant to admit. Yet their ties represent only one of the soapy elements that surround the Bridgerton family and their extended circle, developments chronicled by the mysterious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who narrates the proceedings via the still highly-recognizable voice of Julie Andrews.
Series creator Chris Van Dusen (a veteran of Rhimes’ “Scandal” and “Grey’s”) does a credible job juggling all the assorted plot threads, erecting one new hazard to throw into the path of Daphne and the Duke after another.
There’s a sluggishness to the pacing, however, as the will-they-or-won’t-they contortions pile up on various fronts. For anybody who has read or watched many Jane Austen adaptations, it’s hard to escape the familiarity of that scenario, even with the more modern spin.
Of course, there is an audience for British period fare that was once confined to public television (streaming services have exhibited a healthy appetite for such content), though with the exception of something like “Downton Abbey,” that constituency is usually small numbers-wise. Rhimes discovered as much in 2017 with “Still Star-Crossed,” an attempt to build a series around the story of Romeo and Juliet that quickly departed on ABC.
After a run of hits in broadcast television, Rhimes joined Netflix amid a wave of rich contracts with creative talent like her, Ryan Murphy and Kenya Barris, empowering them as the streaming service seeks to secure its next generation of content. By Netflix’s standards, ratings aren’t an issue if such shows can inspire the kind of loyalty that wins and keeps subscribers.
Betting on pedigreed producers might be a wise investment in the long run, and “Bridgerton’s” lustier take on early-19th-century romance serves as a modest point of distinction. Whatever the century, though, for a show that’s all about looking for love, the series doesn’t do nearly enough to earn it.
“Bridgerton” premieres Dec. 25 on Netflix.