Why You Should Watch Hulu’s “Harlots”

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Hulu has really stepped up its game recently with its new Hulu Original shows. The latest Hulu Original to debut to critical acclaim was “Harlots,” an 8-episode British period drama TV series that premiered on Hulu at the end of March 2017. The show has been described as “Downton Abbey meets Game of Thrones,” so you can immediately get a sense of why viewers have been so enthusiastic about the show. Here are all the reasons why you should watch Hulu’s “Harlots.”

#1: “Harlots” delivers powerful female performances with a uniquely female point of view

One reason why this Hulu show has gathered so much acclaim is because it’s a show written by women, with female performers in the starring role. Unlike other shows, which might have used scenes of lust and sexual desire to drive forward a very male-influenced narrative, “Harlots” is very much a character-driven show with a very steady narrative plotline that’s informed by a female perspective on London’s famous 18th century courtesans.

The role that everyone is talking about belongs to Samantha Morton, who plays brothel madam Margaret Wells in late 18th century London. It’s a little more complicated than just that, however, since Margaret Wells is also the mother of two young girls, Charlotte Wells (played by Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy Wells (played by Eloise Smyth), who themselves are being forced into a life of prostitution.

Layered on top of that, we find out very early on in “Harlots” that Margaret Wells herself was thrust into a life of prostitution at a very young age by her alcoholic mother, who essentially sold her for a pair of new shoes. She’s now struggling to meet ends meet, and one of the early episodes of the show ends with her grappling with the decision of how to auction off her youngest daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder.

Things are not going to be easy, and that’s why it’s so important that we get a female, rather than male, perspective on these matters. What “Harlots” has in its favor is the “female gaze” (rather than the oft-described “male gaze”) – the show has female creators (Alison Newman and Moira Buffini), female directors, and female producers. The show itself was inspired by another female, Hallie Rubenhold, who created “The Covent Garden Ladies.”

#2: “Harlots” offers plenty of intrigue, plotting and ruthlessness

The dramatic tension at the heart of “Harlots” concerns the struggle of Margaret Wells to carve out a better life for her daughters. Part of that involves a move across town to a more upscale London neighborhood, where her clients can become notable members of the British upper class. That move, however, immediately pits her against her former boss, the madam Lydia Quigley (played by Leslie Manville).

That’s not going to be easy, though, since nobody enjoys having new competitors encroach on their turf, least of all when it concerns the ability to make a considerable amount of money from prostitution. That struggle between the two madams – Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley – constitutes another strong narrative plotline. And the dynamic performances from both of them are quite outstanding.

In many ways, the battle between the two rival brothels is as ruthless as a battle between two rival mafia clans. The tactics may be different, but the effect is the same. In one episode, there’s an attempt to use religious reformers as a way to shut down the upstart brothel and keep it from branching out into a more profitable neighborhood.

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#3: “Harlots” is not your standard 18th century period drama

If you were expected a slightly more lurid version of Jane Austen with “Harlots,” think again. Whereas many of Jane Austen’s works deal with the polite society of British lords and the unique dilemmas facing the members of the landed gentry, “Harlots” is firmly rooted in the gritty reality of a very debauched London.

As many viewers have pointed out, this realism is really what makes the show stand out. Yes, there is much of the stuffy decorum that we associate with that period, but we also get a glimpse of the poorest layers of society and the desperate measures they must take simply to stay alive. Being forced to sell your youngest daughter into prostitution is not exactly something that you’d encounter with Jane Austen, let alone Charles Dickens. (And, speaking of Dickens, one of the English estates used to film “Harlots” was also used to film BBC’s production of Dickens’ “Great Expectations”)

Thus, if you were expecting plenty of salacious bedroom scenes – or at least, the kinds of nudity we’ve come to expect from “Game of Thrones” – you might need to temper your expectations a bit. You’re just as likely to see depraved scenes of sex in a London alleyway as you are highly edited scenes of courtesans romping around in a stately English manor.

#4: “Harlots” offers insights into socio-economic problems still with us today

As “Harlots” makes clear from the outset, 18th century London was a place where as many as one-fifth of all women made a living by selling sex. There were only two real paths of economic opportunity – become a courtesan or marry well. One of the most popular reads of the era was called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, which was essentially a ratings guide of the city’s best courtesans and how to find them. So you can get a sense of the debauchery of the era.

But how far off are those socio-economic troubles from those we see in Western society today? Go to any large metropolitan area in the United States, and we see the same stark division of society into the “haves” and the “have nots.” For some ethnic and racial groups, there is also a very limited number of paths to economic opportunity, such as playing sports or selling drugs. Any other path is really a dead-end.

As we see in “Harlots,” prostitution is not glamorous, and the sex is not “sexy.” 18th century London was a nasty, brutish place, and so you can almost excuse the machinations and intrigue of the two brothel madams at the heart of the story. This is a powerful TV show, and one that has earned all of its critical acclaim. You really should be watching Hulu’s “Harlots.”

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