“Marie Antoinette” meets that one section in “Les Misérables” where Anne Hathaway is a prostitute. That’s at least the surface setup for Hulu’s latest series, “Harlots.” The salacious drama aims its sights on the world of 18th century brothels and the power struggles that come about within them. There’s quite a bit of style, and even a little substance, to the proceedings. Much as the show walks the line between decadent and trashy, so does the storytelling, which can be faint and engrossing in equal measure.
The world of prostitution in 1763 London is split into two worlds. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) runs a brothel for the people and is popular among the community. She houses a whole slew of women, but is saving her youngest daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), from entering this world. That is, she’s saving her until her virginity can be sold for the best price. Her older daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), is engaged to a haughty young man, Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner), who harbors a penchant for women’s clothing but is her ticket to being a legitimized mistress. Margaret is close to obtaining a more legitimate, larger brothel in society. That is until a police raid puts away most of her girls and sticks her with a hefty fine.
On the other side of town is the more refined Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), whose girls play instruments, converse in high society, and act like ladies before taking their gentlemen callers to bed. The tactical Lydia wants Margaret run out of town by any means necessary in order to advance her standing and business in the community. This even involves teaming up with puritanical crusaders hell bent on restoring decency to the community.
The inception for the series comes, in part, from a real 18th century document entitled “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies.” This directory of sorts for London prostitutes makes an appearance early on as the girls read about themselves with gleeful delight. From these early scenes, we see that this won’t be the standard image of young prostitutes – period style or otherwise. There’s a childish glee in the way they toss sexual innuendos and barbs around. We quickly see their age and maturity materialize in interesting ways. While these girls definitely have a unique voice compared to other shows out there, distinguishing between their plights becomes rather difficult. The show is more distinct in its setting, but less so in the establishment of individual characters. The women act more as a Greek chorus of representation, rather than stand out as individuals. For a TV show, this could be quite an issue.
Fans of Mike Leigh and early millennium surprise Oscar nominees will rejoice at seeing Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton square off as rival madams. Manville dolls herself up beyond recognition as Lydia Quigley. However, she uses her enormous hair and costume to dole out some ferocious acting. As Margaret Wells, Morton, on the other hand, bursts into each scene with more cleavage than ever before to cackle and shriek her way into our hearts. Both are as over-the-top as the décor, but give the piece the pulse it so richly deserves. If for nothing else, the show is worth watching to see more face-offs between them.
“Harlots” has promise amid its little grace. Many of the actual harlots need work on their stories in order to carry their weight of the series. Likewise, the writers need to decide whether they have enough to focus on the Wells family as the protagonists. While Morton can command a scene, Findlay and Smyth have room for improvement. This is especially critical if their arcs are going to carry the series. Nevertheless, the premiere was soapy and entertaining enough to warrant continued viewing. All we ask is that there are more head-to-head matches between Manville and Morton.
“Harlots” airs Wednesdays on Hulu.