From the first few seconds of the trailer for “The Courtship,” it’s clear that the new NBC dating show is, frankly, absolutely batshit.
“Once upon a time, a young woman began a quest for true love,” intones a female narrator with a British accent that’s so Mary Poppins-esque it sounds fake. Cue footage of a woman swanning about a massive manor house in a dress befitting a Disney princess. The narrator continues, “A journey where swiping is out—and courting is in.”
“Can the old ways of courtship lead to new romance?” she asks.
That’s ostensibly the fundamental question guiding this new show, which is being marketed as “The Bachelorette” meets “Bridgerton.” Sixteen suitors will woo *NFL cheerleader turned software engineer* Nicole Remy, the woman in the aforementioned dress, while they all pretend to be in 19th-century England—with all the attendant carriage rides, fencing, and bathtub make-outs.
Look: I’m an unabashed romance-novel reader, which is exactly what “Bridgerton” is based on. I adore sparkling banter, sizzling sexual chemistry, and the cozy guarantee that the hero and heroine, or any other constellation of romantic groupings, will live Happily Ever After.
But I’m also an adult who is aware of the fact that women weren’t allowed to vote in the United Kingdom until the 20th century, and that, at the time of these so-called “old ways,” even the most privileged of women were little more than property. How can a show expect its audience to swallow the idea that “true love” was more attainable in a time when women were all but sold into marriage?
“The Courtship” seems to be loosely basing its setting on the Regency era, which lasted from 1811 to 1820 and marks the period when George IV served as the regent ruler for his mentally ill father King George III. Of course, the roughly two-minute-long trailer—which has now racked up 1.5 million views—doesn’t exactly detail its influences, other than reassuring us that the show is here to return us to a time of “honor, pageantry, and scandal.” So I’m basing my assumption off the Regency era’s status as the default setting for historical romance novels, which is itself due in no small part to the fact that Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice, the ur-text of “enemies to lovers” romance in the English canon, in 1813.
Now, I don’t expect “The Courtship” to accurately reflect the Regency era; it’s not like romance novels do. Romancelandia’s version of Regency England is decidedly rosy, populated almost entirely with aristocrats who are CW-level hot, quick with a quip, and certainly bathe with frequency. The hero is usually wealthy; in a capitalistic society, we all know happiness is only really possible if you marry money. (If Christian Grey had been poor, would his stalking still have made the audience swoon?) Although plenty of very good romance writers have tinkered with this formula, focusing on LGBTQ characters or subverting race and gender and class mores, the parameters tend to be much the same no matter the author.
This is the fantasy that “The Courtship” is really trafficking in, the one that “Bridgerton” the TV show captured. If the show acknowledged that toilets, zippers, and equality were all in short supply in the 1800s, its escapist allure would disintegrate. Presumably, the inevitable drama over which men are there for the “wrong reasons” will be resolved “Bachelor”-style, not “Bridgerton”-style–i.e., without any illegal dueling.
But “The Courtship” posits that the Regency era was better than ours, that women who have options should want to return to it because it’s like a “fairy tale” or a “story book.” “Modern dating? It’s not working,” declares Remy, adding that she’s looking for “more etiquette and being proper and chivalry.” But there’s a difference between wanting to escape into the pages of a lighthearted book and wanting to actually live in it.
The show’s original title was, ironically, “Pride & Prejudice: An Experiment in Romance.” Pride and Prejudice literally opened with the economic complications of 19th-century marriage. “The Courtship” wants to pretend that, in the past, no one cared about money.
Unlike “The Courtship,” many historical romance novels feature individuals finding love within a time period that is grossly and fundamentally unfair, but that they can’t escape. The happiest ending for a female character often involves her settling into becoming a wife and mother, because that’s all that’s available to her; she rides off into the sunset of domesticity. The best authors, in my opinion, at least try to acknowledge the power imbalances facing their characters, but I also understand that this kind of Happily Ever After is what I sign up for when I crack open a heterosexual historical romance.
“The Courtship,” for all its burnishing of this fantasy of a better past, does rewrite the past in some crucial ways. Remy and her family, who appear on the show, are Black. Her cast of suitors include numerous men of color. The racial diversity of “Bridgerton” was likely an influence, since the show crafted a “blueprint for British period shows in which Black characters can thrive within the melodramatic story lines, extravagant costumes, and bucolic beauty that make such series so appealing, without having to be servants or enslaved,” as Salamishah Tillet wrote in the New York Times.
“The Courtship” may prove to be a similar blueprint for reality dating shows, since the titans of the genre still fumble with race. The “Bachelor” franchise, after all, didn’t cast a Black lead until 2017, after being on the air for 15 years, and one of its recent winners was pictured at an antebellum-themed college party.
It matters, too, that the show centers around a woman, not a man; if we had to watch a bachelor choose from a group of women vying for his approval, “The Courtship” would have been a little too real. Rather, like any good romance novel, “The Courtship” clearly takes its heroine’s horniness—and that of the supposedly female, heterosexual audience—seriously. “They’re gorgeous,” Remy marvels, before footage rolls of her suitors jumping into a pond à la Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy. Judging by the brief trailer, the show–unlike the real Regency era– doesn’t seem to be afraid of women’s sexual desire.
At least one of “the old ways” also seems uniquely suited for a dating reality show: One of the twists in “The Courtship” is that, according to People magazine, the suitors are also competing for “the seal of approval from Remy's trusted court of advisors: her parents Claude and Claire, sister Danielle, and best friend Tessa.”
The show appears to frame this “court” as a way to reverse the life cycle of app dating, where people tend to meet their significant others’ friends and family only once the relationship is serious. But the name also evokes the hovering “ton” of Regency-era romances: a host of people who are always watching and commenting on the main characters’ actions behind gloved hands, threatening them with social ruin if they step out of line. Sure, it’s a sign of community, but it also reinforces social norms and powers an atmosphere of constant surveillance.
And it’s a little like reality TV itself. There, under the gaze of the audience, people test the boundaries between their private and public selves. In both romance and reality TV, shucking that public self is the indicator of intimacy. And from the Regency era to now: It is a truth universally acknowledged that we all love watching people make idiots of themselves in the name of Happily Ever After.