This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until a couple of days after this post's publication; we got screeners.
Should You Get Into Bed With Harlots?
Or is it all talk and not enough action?
What Is This Thing?
Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), a mid-level madam in 18th-century London, tries to claw her way into the fancy echelons of the sex industry, and bring her daughters Charlotte and Lucy (Jessica Brown Findlay and Eloise Smyth) with her.
When Is It On?
Wednesdays on Hulu, starting March 29.
Why Was It Made Now?
Everybody -- well, people I'm friends with and/or related to -- loves a period piece: just look at The Crown's success on Netflix. Additionally, Hulu is trying to become a major player the streaming-originals game, and they don't have a prestige period piece yet. (Okay, 11.22.63, but that one's not getting nominated for any costuming or makeup Emmys.) In this case, Hulu partnered with ITV, which seems like a good way to jump on that train. Er, carriage.
What's Its Pedigree?
Harlots was created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Buffini previously wrote the screenplay for the 2011 Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska and a bunch of other stuff. This is Newman's first producing gig, but she knows her way around a soap opera: she appeared on the last eight seasons of EastEnders.
Incidentally, Buffini and Newman and their team worked from the real Harris's List Of Covent Garden Ladies, the bestselling book of prostitute reviews published each year in Georgian London -- like Yelp for sex workers. (Well, not FOR sex workers. ABOUT them.)
This pilot was such a surprise: the trailer I watched looked mostly tacky and obnoxious, but the episode itself is clear-eyed, tightly plotted, and pretty well-written; it sets up a potentially really interesting series. Margaret's ambitions clash immediately with those of her high-class counterpart Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and the blind moralist Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson), and the mass of high-stakes, zero-sum conflict among the three women is genuinely compelling. The pilot also sets up rich storylines for Charlotte and Lucy as their mother tries to establish them as upper-class mistresses to wealthy men of varying levels of grossness. There are a lot of characters living out a lot of stories, and with some breathing room, I'm intrigued to see what the series might become.
The show's opening sequence claims that, in 1763 London, one in five women made a living by selling sex, and the writers claim to have been going for a "whore's-eye view," particularly with the intention of eliminating or ignoring the male gaze. They've done a pretty good job of that: if anything, the gaze is more like "not really objectifying, but definitely still noting a lot of boobs." (They've promised an equal amount of male nudity, though the pilot doesn't deliver in that area.) With the exception of Margaret's partner, we see the men entirely through the lens of sex work -- whom they're trying to hire, what they're into, and why.
My hope is that that women-centric perspective will extend into the rest of the house and let us get to know the rest of Margaret's girls better. Intimacy is the name of the game here, and if they can be specific about who these women are, they should have endless material. Weirdly, they might look to Call The Midwife -- which, since it's about nuns and nurses, is at the opposite end of the raciness spectrum, but which does a terrific job of establishing characters and getting the audience to invest in a variety of relationships on an intimate scale. Many of the actors on this show have already appeared on Call The Midwife as part of its endless stream of pregnant women, so maybe they know what they're about.
I also hope to see more of Lydia Quigley's House of Earthly Delights, because (a) I have questions about a place with a name like that; and (b) lots of period pieces have scenes set in brothels like Margaret's, but the setting for Lydia's girls feels fresh and compelling. The choice to set the series in the Georgian era is a fun one, visually -- anybody remotely aristocratic gets to wear truly gigantic skirts, funny frizzy wigs, and little black face patches to hide their smallpox scars. It's a place for the costume design people to go a little crazy and inject the sense of a raucous, decadent setting they're going for.
If there's anything that might sink this show -- besides being an uninvitingly-titled period piece about prostitutes airing only on Hulu, I mean -- it's going to be the details of presentation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh can be a little heavy-handed.
Whoever made the decision to contrast the period setting with a contemporary typeface, score, and opening sequence wasn't wrong; something with a straight-up PBS vibe would be even more likely to languish on Hulu. But the execution is a little like someone finally saw the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette right before the pitch meeting and got some pretty hip ideas. The kind of cool they're looking for abhors this kind of obvious effort, and their advertising campaign doubles down on it in a way that may not get them the particular eyeballs they want.
More importantly: cool it on the modern moralizing. There's nothing more awkward than historical characters with anachronistically progressive moral takes on the world speechifying about the right side of history -- even when they're right, which they usually are, otherwise nobody would feel the need to take a stand one way or the other. A period sex-work show is a minefield for this kind of thing. When Charlotte (Findlay) storms into the courtroom and tells the judge that Margaret "protects her girls because the law does not," she might be right, but the sound-bite quality of it sounds like a wrong note. This is only the pilot, and these things sometimes get smoothed out as the show gets some breathing room. But ideally this stuff will come out in the structure of the show more than in the dialogue.
If you like tightly-woven dramas and awesome wigs and can look past the silly branding, you might find something to enjoy here. I was surprised to find that I did.