Hulu's 'Harlots' Follows Prostitutes In 18th Century London

Mar 29, 2017
Originally published on March 29, 2017 10:56 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A new British costume drama debuts on Hulu tonight, but if this genre is not your cup of tea, don't tune out just yet. This is not "Masterpiece Theater." The series, called "Harlots," follows a female brothel owner and her daughters in 18th century London. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show's producers have excelled at crafting a modern story about the world's oldest profession. And we should warn you. This story does have some frank language about sex.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From the first episode, the action in "Harlots" poses a bold question. What would a TV show about prostitution look like if the creators and producers were mostly female?

(LAUGHTER)

DEGGANS: What it isn't, especially in the opening moments, is subtle. Consider this scene where the ladies working in the brothel are reading reviews at their services in a book published in 1763 written as a sort of Yelp for prostitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLOTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Let's see what's in here about you girls. Ms. Fanny Lambert - the very thing in winter for those who love a fat, jolly girl. A fine, bouncing, crummy wench - and not a miss in summer barring perspiration.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character, laughter).

BRONWYN JAMES: (As Fanny Lambert) Does it say I stink?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: (As character) Perspire doesn't mean stink.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #4: (As character) Yeah, it does.

DEGGANS: "Harlots" is a show created by two women, Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. Unlike most shows, "Harlots" features a mostly female creative team of producers, directors and writers. The result is a series that avoids the temptation of focusing on nude bodies and sex, which is arguably the way male producers have treated prostitutes in shows like "Game Of Thrones" and "Deadwood."

Instead, we see Oscar nominee Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells. She's a madam who sees prostitution as a route to financial independence at a time when women had to surrender their wealth to their husbands when they got married. And she's not above teasing a rich customer by previewing when she will auction off her teenage daughter's virginity.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLOTS")

SAMANTHA MORTON: (As Margaret Wells) I'm soon taking a fine new house. When we're settled there, I'll be taking sealed bids for Lucy's virginity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Twenty-five pounds to have her now.

MORTON: (As Margaret Wells) Sealed bids, as I did for Charlotte, my older daughter. She's one of the brightest stars in London's firmament, and I intend no less for Lucy.

DEGGANS: These aren't exactly hookers with a heart of gold, but from Margaret's point of view, she's done her daughter Lucy a great service. She's waited to induct her into the business even though she herself was sold to a madam at a much younger age.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLOTS")

MORTON: (As Margaret Wells) My mother took me down (unintelligible) Lane. She'd spent every last farthing on her gin, the slut. She sold me to a bawd for a pair of shoes. I was 10.

DEGGANS: "Harlots" is mostly about women making supremely difficult choices at a time when they had few options. According to a graphic at the beginning of the first episode, 1 in 5 women worked in the profession in England at that time. It's kind of the anti-"Downton Abbey."

That point's driven home when you see "Downton" alum Jessica Brown Findlay - she played doomed daughter Sybil Crawley on that show - as Margaret Wells' older daughter, Catherine (ph). Here, Catherine speaks up for her mother, who's on trial for running a disreputable bawd or brothel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HARLOTS")

JESSICA BROWN FINDLAY: (As Charlotte) We are pursued and harried like prey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #5: (As character) That's right, yeah.

FINDLAY: (As Charlotte) My mother protects her girls because the law does not.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #6: (As character) Charlotte, sit down.

FINDLAY: (As Charlotte) She is the exemplar of all the bawds in London.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) In your own words, you have admitted that your mother is a common bawd.

DEGGANS: Whoops - maybe she would have been better off keeping quiet just then. The show cheekily explores lots of topics, from the tension between religion and sex to the patriarchal power of a culture where men could plan their trips to the brothels right in front of their wives. Most importantly, this show created with a female gaze keeps its sights set on the humanity of its female characters despite their struggles working in an inhumane business. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE COMETS SONG, "WESTERN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.