Where there’s one hit show, there will always be another. Or, at least, that’s the likely theory behind the obviously-named Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. For the most part, expanding the world of the Ton makes sense, mostly because it retains many of the things people love about Bridgerton itself: ornate costumes, high society drama and sex. Lots of it.
The mass fixation on Bridgerton is particular to these key elements, which come together to create a light-hearted, frothy romance that revels in sumptuous, sometimes fantastical period flourishes. The success of the show’s first two seasons, each of which has focused on a specific Bridgerton family courtship in Regency London, has been so great that it apparently already warrants a prequel. This six-episode limited series centers on Queen Charlotte, portrayed in the original show by an imposing Golda Rosheuvel, who reappears here. The focus, however, is on a younger Charlotte (India Amarteifio) as she arrives from Germany and is set to marry King George (Corey Mylchreest). Will they fall in love? Will they consummate the marriage despite some initial misgivings? Will the Ton accept Charlotte as their queen? How many dresses will she wear?
In the series, Charlotte is Black, as many historians suggest she may have been in real life, and her appearance in high society forces a shift that ripples throughout the Ton. Many lesser nobles are given titles, including Lord and Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas), who quickly becomes Charlotte’s closest confidant. George’s mother, Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley), is uncertain about the rapidly changing societal landscape, as are many of the white lords and ladies. This tension, which underlies the entire series, is less present in Bridgerton because by the time we arrive in that story the evolution has already occurred. But here it’s undeniably interesting, more so than the will-they-or-won’t-they vibe to George and Charlotte’s relationship.
Prequels, which are annoyingly popular on TV at the moment, are tricky because we know the end point. We know where this goes, which assumes that the story of how we get there is interesting enough to tell for an entire series. And in much of Queen Charlotte, which was written by Shonda Rhimes and Nicholas Nardini, it is. Amarteifio is well cast as a 17-year-old Charlotte, who hasn’t quite come into her power yet, and Thomas is the standout as Lady Danbury, played in her later years by Adjoa Andoh. Also delightful is Sam Clemmett, who is equal parts charming and oily as the Queen’s gossipy secretary Brimsley, who is engaged in his own love affair. It’s fun to see Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury become friends, as it is to see Charlotte step into her role as leader of the Ton (don’t worry, gentle reader, the balls here are just as decadent as they are in Bridgerton).
The problem, however, is the structure of the series. Although it is technically a prequel, with most of the narrative set during the beginning of Charlotte’s reign, each episode is book-ended by a secondary story about Queen Charlotte in the present day time of Bridgerton. The story is something about her needing an heir and her many, many children either being unmarried virgins or philandering lads who sire illegitimate kids all over town. Whatever it is, it’s boring. Sure, it’s always a kick to see Rosheuvel parade around in enormous wigs and fans will enjoy the appearance of Ruth Gemmell as Violet, Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton (played as a teenager by Connie Jenkins-Greig). But the extra story is just that: extra. This dual narrative feels like an excuse to squeeze in the actresses fans already know and to include a few lines of voiceover by Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews). Not everything needs to be a nod to something else.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Queen Charlotte is perfectly crafted or if the story could have used some editing. Fans are going to watch it regardless. The costumes are beautiful, the sets are elaborate, the instrumental versions of contemporary pop songs are present and pretty people have sex onscreen many, many times. It may not be a love story in the way the Bridgerton seasons are love stories, but the relationships in the series are generally interesting, including Charlotte and George’s complicated marriage. Rhimes is a smart writer and showrunner, who knows how to give people what they want while sliding her own ideas in. In its best moments, that’s what Queen Charlotte does: offers lavish escapism with a hint of social commentary.