Idiot Box: “Harlots” On Hulu

“Harlots” On Hulu

Devin D. O'Leary
3 min read
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Hulu’s new series “Harlots” is a fine example of truth in advertising. A clear attempt to hook viewers of Cinemax/Showtime’s randier, late-night offerings, the series introduces viewers to the colorful, skin-filled world of 18th century British prostitution.

Filled to the brim with nudity and rumpy-pumpy action, the series is set in 1763 London. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton from
Sweet and Lowdown, Morvern Callar and Minority Report) is the ambitious madam of a mid-range brothel in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. Margaret is eyeing a move up in the world, hoping to secure a fancier location for her expanding business. This puts her in the sights of crosstown rival Ms. Quigley (Lesley Manville from Secrets & Lies,Vera Drake and Maleficent), a snooty madam whose girls dance, speak French and can converse about art. Eager to crush her low-rent rival, Quigley starts an all-out war by siccing the local morals squad on Wells’ house of ill repute. The ensuing legal fallout strains Margaret’s finances and forces her to up her plans to auction off the virginity of her youngest daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth from “Fortitude”).

In other, ongoing plotlines, Lucy’s older sister Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, Lady Sybil from “Downton Abbey”) considers selling herself exclusively to a local lord for a big payday. Also, one of Margaret’s highest-earning whores (Holli Dempsey) finds herself poached by the scheming Ms. Quigley. Throw in a few more kinky lords and ladies, and we’ve got the recipe for a naughty good time.

“Harlots” isn’t exactly PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” material. The costumes are fancy, the neighborhoods are historic-looking. But the narrative about warring prostitutes and the perverts who love them is unabashedly trashy. There are, of course, vague explorations of women’s roles in Georgian London (where one in five women is employed as a a prostitute, the show’s opening crawl informs us.) Co-creators Alison Newman and Moira Buffini are known as a longtime actress (“EastEnders”) and screenwriter (
Tamara Drewe), respectively. But this isn’t some politically correct, BBC-approved history lesson. These are clearly the cleanest, most well-manicured, least pox-riddled prostitutes in the history of London. So much for historical realism. The pace of the show is fast, the nudity is frequent and the musical accompaniment is an amped-up rock-and-roll good time—all of which clues you in as to what kind of show “Harlots” really is. This one’s a well-dressed, often undressed guilty pleasure.

Season one of “Harlots” premieres Wednesday, March 29, on Hulu.

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