'Harlots': TV Review

Harlots Episodic Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Hulu
Solid and full of potential.

By removing the sexy from its portrayal of 18th-century London sex workers, Hulu's new series starring Samantha Morton reaches beyond cliche and toward realism.

There are pleasures to be had in Hulu's new series Harlots, a different kind of family saga set in 1763 London against the backdrop of two warring "boarding houses" (better known as brothels), at a time when one in every five women was in the sex trade. But the pleasures here are not of the flesh, as Harlots sets its this-is-what-we-do tone about prostitution in the opening minutes and doesn't do much gilding after that.

Credit goes to series creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, who are at the forefront of the women creators, women directors and almost exclusively women producers behind Harlots. They are not stripping the show of eye-candy sexuality and lust as payback to men who have historically prettied up the exploitation of women and their bodies in service of titillation in movies and TV; they're doing so in an honest effort to ground the show in reality.

It's not a glamorous business, even if the madams wear giant wigs and lace and do business with much of the ruling class.

What Buffini — who wrote the first two episodes offered up for review — and Newman achieve with this approach is a certain, well, business-like efficiency. Harlots wants to be character-driven and focus on the rival madams, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), instead of lots of naked bodies and passionate sex.

That may be disappointing to some who read that Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey was playing a prostitute. But it better serves Jessica Brown Findlay as an actress that she can work the more substantive angles of her role as Morton's oldest daughter, Charlotte, who was sold into prostitution as a preteen and now is still considered one of the most desirable courtesans of London society.

Sex as power and opportunity — often the only opportunity — in 1763 is what the women behind Harlots keep hammering home. Morton, who does a superb job as tough-minded madam Margaret, hell-bent on climbing the ladder to an equal height as rival Lydia Quigley, nails the emotional nuances of her character's situation. Sold by her own mother into prostitution at age 10 for a pair of shoes, she's proud of having made a life for herself after that while still ashamed and internally tortured that she turned out Charlotte and is now taking bids for the virginity of her youngest daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth). 

"This city is made of our flesh — every beam, every brick. We'll get our share," Margaret says.

Some of the inspiration for Harlots comes from "Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies," a ratings guide to prostitutes of the times. The series, co-produced with ITV in England, attempts to see the world as it really was, not through "the male gaze," as its creators say. This "whore's-eye view" of Georgian London tries to infuse some freshness in a tired genre.

Credit Harlots for, as previously mentioned, dispensing with the glamour within its first few frames. In this world of prostitution, quickies in back alleys and sex among people throwing up or starving is part of the norm. This is the unflinching worldview, and the characters are built from there. What the series does best is make smaller characters from both brothels emerge as fully fledged people in short order. While the visuals are not as grimy as some of the bleaker visions offered up on PBS' "Masterpiece" series or otherwise, enough is made of Lydia's higher standing and Margaret's more working-class situation to understand the division and get a feel for the great leaps in society that better neighborhoods afford. Helping fuel the narrative is the early revelation that Margaret's mother sold her to Lydia.

Where Harlots struggles more is in trying to balance this portrait of a grittier world with the show's penchant for wanting things a bit snappier and more modern — using contemporary music, for example, or forcing sometimes jarring shifts in visual style from sober to more self-conscious (as when the second episode ends with a scene of comeuppance that suddenly looks like a music video).

Harlots doesn't really need that artifice, but when the show is bouncing along as it often does without making the whole world of 1763 London seem wretched, it does have genuine moments of insouciance and humor; the musical and stylistic flourishes seem more at home in those scenes.

Two episodes are not a definitive indication of the tone to come, but Harlots is already entertaining, and there are enough hints here to suggest that it could be intriguingly unique, too.

Cast: Samantha Morton, Jessica Brown Findlay, Lesley Manville, Eloise Smyth
Created by: Moira Buffini, Alison Newman
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)