I discovered Harlots in a moment of desperation, as I was endlessly scrolling through Hulu options hoping for a new obsession. What was this campy, Marie Antoinette-looking show about a brothel? Could a Hulu original be … my new TV love?
Harlots is set in 1763 London, when apparently 1 in 5 women made a living by “selling their bodies.” It opens up on the ladies of the Wells brothel, who are reading extremely well-written descriptions of themselves in a local rag. They giggle and preen at their write-ups, and it’s clear right away these women are fairly empowered.
As we get comfortable in their world, we’re hit with such lacy, colorful language and poofy costumery that I felt like I had stepped into Bath & Bodyworks—in a good way. In Harlots, everything is vivid, sensual and in cursive.
Despite its gilded veneer, Harlots does not lack depth or drama. The plot advances at breakneck speed, and provides a never-ending cast of shadowy characters to keep our heroes on their toes. We get a sense of the work that goes into regulating and protecting an industry like this, and just how fragile it can be when corrupted by greed and power. In between sophisticated as-heck old-timey language (“I will not be cosseted!” Lucy tells her mom at one point), we also get some extremely provocative lines. When talking about why she wants to sell her daughters to a “keeper,” Margaret Wells spouts, “Men don’t respect harlots. They respect property.” Ending that sentence with “property” instead of “purity” is quite interesting.
Overall, Harlots is whip-smart and so luxurious in maximalist language and makeup that it’s hard not to get sucked in. I can’t wait for season 2.
Why You Should Watch It
You enjoy female-driven narratives that explore topics that are often ham-fistedly represented by Hollywood. Or you just like British stuff. Or cool costumes. There’s something for everyone really.
You Might Hate It If
You can’t stand unrealistically clever dialogue.
The wonderfully all-over-the-place performance of Hugh Skinner as George Howard.
Lucy Wells, the virginal daughter of Margaret, never quite evolves as a character the way I hoped she would.
9/10. I am now much more open to Hulu originals than I was before this particular TV marathon.