Queen Charlotte review: A Bridgerton prequel that earns its pedigree

And on the fifth year of her multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix, Shonda Rhimes created the Bridgerton Extended Universe. And it was good. Queen Charlotte — the new prequel to Rhimes' racy Regency hit — is a lavish, thoughtful expansion of Julia Quinn's saga that goes down as smooth as a fruity blancmange.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany is just 17 years old when she's promised, sight unseen, in a marriage pact to Britain's King George III. Still, she's intelligent enough to discern that something must be amiss with the monarch if his court had to travel so far to find a bride. "There is reason they wanted me, a stranger," huffs Charlotte (India Amarteifio) to her brother Adolphus (Tunji Kasim), who brokered the union. "And it cannot be a good reason."

An initial meeting with the young sovereign (Corey Mylchreest) reveals him to be a charming gentleman with exquisite bone structure, but Charlotte's marital bliss ends almost as soon as the wedding does. George insists on keeping a safe distance from his new Queen, while Charlotte's dictatorial mother-in-law, Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley), demands that the fledgling royal conceive an heir, post-haste. Even if she could flee back to Germany, Charlotte soon realizes there is far more than her own happiness at stake. To ensure the public's approval of the King's interracial marriage, Parliament launched the "Great Experiment," integrating high society by bestowing land and titles on wealthy people of color. "You are the first of your kind," explains the newly minted Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas). "Why do you not understand that you hold our fates in your hands?"

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Nick Wall/Netflix Corey Mylchreest, India Amarteifio, and Sam Clemmett in 'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story'

Subtitled A Bridgerton Story, Queen Charlotte follows that series' blueprint to the letter. Like the central couples before them, George and Charlotte face significant obstacles to their happiness — in this case, George's emerging "madness" and the brutal methods his doctor (Guy Henry) employs to treat them — but they still manage to have a lot of steamy sex in between arguments. The pair endures resistance and skepticism from powerful members of society, most notably the watchful Lord Bute (Richard Cunningham), who suspects Augusta is not being forthcoming about her son's mental state. The King's devoted valet, Reynolds (Freddie Dennis), works tirelessly behind the scenes to protect George's secret, which often puts him in conflict with the Queen's right-hand man, Brimsley (Sam Clemmett). And in the present-day timeline, Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) finds herself under immense pressure — from the government and Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews) — to marry off one of her 13 (!) children, after the only legitimate heir to the throne dies in childbirth.

There are lavish balls and passionate love scenes; luxurious period fashions and poignant personal tragedy. It could all feel very Bridgerton Lite, but Rhimes — who writes or co-writes five of the six episodes — uses the prequel to explore deeper issues than just romance and heartache. On Bridgerton, the integrated 'ton is a novelty, the origins of which are barely discussed. Queen Charlotte reveals the struggle that came first, as Lady Danbury and her peers scramble and strategize to secure the equality they deserve.

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Nick Wall/Netflix Ruth Gemmell and Adjoa Andoh in 'Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story'

The present-day timeline — which takes place shortly after Bridgerton season 2 — provides a welcome spotlight for some of the series' more mature female characters. A burgeoning friendship between Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) empowers the two lonely women to realize that their needs matter — even if they're no longer of childbearing age. ("Lady Whistledown never writes of our hearts," notes Lady Danbury wryly. "We are untold stories.") And Queen Charlotte's crippling isolation only becomes more profound as her resentful children revolt against their mother's marriage decree.

Rosheuvel shades her character's imperious bluster with traces of muted sorrow, while delivering the Queen's devastating commentary ("You are old. Your wombs are likely dry and useless") with the same hilariously haughty disdain that made her a fan favorite. Amarteifio, meanwhile, is an absolute star. As young Charlotte, the actress balances the confidence and hauteur of a headstrong young woman with the quiet yearning of a child who has been forced to grow up too fast. Newcomer Thomas brings a sparkling shrewdness to young Lady Danbury, whose marriage to the striving Lord Danbury (Cyril Nri) is definitely not a love match.

Queen Charlotte is only six episodes, and it's not yet clear whether Rhimes and Netflix are interested in making more. There is certainly plenty of story left to tell, as the prequel only covers about a year of the King and Queen's marriage. It feels strange to root for a brand extension, but young Queen Charlotte's is a universe worth exploring further. Grade: B+

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story premieres Thursday, May 4, on Netflix.

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