Streaming on Hulu
Metadata: Unrated (but decidedly NSFW) | 2017 | 1 season, 8 episodes, 45 minutes each
Genre: Period Drama
Why I watched: Harlots popped up under Hulu's "Inspiring Female Creators" list last month, which I sometimes peruse when I'm looking for a new show. The series has two female creators, and all episodes were both written and directed by women. When I saw my favorite Crawley sister, Lady Sybil aka Jessica Brown Findley, was helming the cast, I was sold!
You might also like: Downton Abbey is the obvious choice, but might lead you down a path of wrong impressions if you expect Mrs. Wells's house to be anything like Downton. Regardless, the BBC classic is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Harlots follows two competing brothels in 18th century London, when one in five women made a living selling sex. The series was inspired by Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual catalog published between 1757 and 1795 that listed the physical appearance and sexual specialties of the 100+ female sex workers in and around London at the time. And while the Hulu original series doesn't shy away from depicting all that comes along with its subject matter or time period (nudity, violence, sex scenes, etc.), Harlots offers an empowering take on lust: These women are the manipulators, not the manipulated
The two brothels in the series are owned by the rugged Margaret Wells (Oscar-nominee Samatha Morton) and rococo-styled Lydia Quigley (stage-legend Lesley Manville of Phantom Thread), two intelligent and conniving women who are as likeable as they are loathable. Margaret has two daughters, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy (newcomer Eloise Smyth), both of whom were born into a life of "whoredom." Charlotte has been working since she was 12 and is now one of the most coveted harlots in Soho; Mrs. Wells is preparing to auction off her younger daughter Lucy's maidenhead to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, love, murder, religion, slavery, and the American colonies are also in the mix. If you can't tell, I am completely enthralled with the world- and relationship-building done by this series, particularly the pace at which it happens: Harlots starts in the middle of a historical turf war, full of bad blood and long sordid backstories, and expects you to catch up.
I could recommend this show based purely on the intricacy of its plot—the show's careful exploration of relationships, gender, race, class, power, and money—but that would forget that Harlots is a cinematic masterpiece. (Which, TBH, was totally unexpected from a Hulu original.) The costumes and set design are incredible. Sound editing is on point. The acting is absolutely phenomenal, with the characters making you fully believe that they are walking a very thin line between freedom and disempowerment at any minute, with the risk of pregnancy, disease, enslavement, and arrest palpable throughout. A well-written script certainly seems to help with this. "It’s just shockingly rare," Brown Findlay said, "to read a female protagonist who is flawed, frustrating, brilliant, stubborn, annoying, as well as kind of magnificent in her own way." Agreed.
In short: I'm obsessed with this show, and think that you will be too!
Happy streaming, Liz
PS: The second season starts airing in July, and Liv Tyler (yes, Liv Tyler) is joining the cast.