Harlots proves the future of TV is female
Earlier this year, ITV and Hulu hopped in bed together to produce the bawdy new period drama Harlots. We can’t help but see parallels between it and a previous ITV show, Band of Gold. Both shows were written by women and produced by a female heavy team; both shows tell the sometimes hard-to-swallow stories of prostitution; and both shows feature Samantha Morton in a lead role.
That’s where the parallels end, swapping the muted tones of the gritty streets of Bradford in Band of Gold for the cobbled lanes of 18th-century London shot in glorious color in Harlots.
It’s fitting that after such a storied career Samantha Morton should return to ITV exploring similar themes to her breakout role. Having come full circle, she now plays brothel-owner Margaret Wells, whose lot in life is to protect her charges – rather than the Tracy Richards of Band of Gold who desperately needed to be protected.
Harlots’ first episode jumps straight into the action, depicting an escalating turf war between Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), owner of a bawdy Covent Garden house of ill repute, and her archnemesis and former employer, the wholly more put-together Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville, a veteran fully in her element), whose own Soho bordello is frequented by the rich and famous.
What’s interesting about Harlots is the universal appeal of the subject matter. The show is based loosely on Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, essentially the 18th-century equivalent of a burn blog, written by a john who had a lot of time (and money) on his hands.
The virginity auction is one of the most distasteful and talked about plot points for modern audiences, but truth proves stranger than fiction: news broke mere days after Harlots’ premiere that an 18-year-old Romanian woman auctioned her own virginity for over $2.5 million.
Throughout the first two episodes we see the action through what executive producer Alison Owen calls the “whore’s eye view.” Game of Thrones it ain’t; the sex here is less to titillate and more to punctuate the politics involved in the trade of sex. In addition, each copulation scene oozes with comedic charm. We see these girls in a job just like any other, the sex coming across as an annoying drop-in from a pesky client rather than something to arouse the audience.
Other critics have made much of the modern choices for underscore and soundtrack, calling them intrusive and jarring – a specious argument quickly rebutted by attempting to identify a single piece from the 1760s that could provide equivalent emotional momentum to modern audiences that the intense rock and electronic jams accompanying the violent imagery of Harlots do. (The source music, such as the castrato art songs performed in a theater scene, are most certainly historically accurate.) This is a recent trend spearheaded most noticeably by Sofia Coppola in Marie Antoinette that, when handled with taste and foresight as in Harlots, is immensely effective.
Only two episodes in, we are not sure where Harlots will go from here, but if you like your period dramas shown through a woman’s lens and your social commentary sprinkled with a dash of high camp, the show is a must see. There’s more than one tart with a heart to be found in Harlots, and we can’t wait to discover where they take us.
Streaming on Hulu now.