3 Seasons/24 Episodes
Created by Alison Newman/Moira Buffini
Based on “The Covent Garden Ladies” by Hallie Rubenhold
Available for streaming on Hulu
My wife Patricia greatly enjoyed “Bridgerton” as did millions of others and so she cast about the other streaming services looking for something similar. A few days later I came up from my cubbyhole in the basement, my day’s writing done to see what she was doing and found her engrossed in a new show she had found on Hulu; HARLOTS. I sat down to see what this one was all about and after about twenty minutes of whatever episode I was watching, something occurred to me that I felt bound to vocalize; “Uh…sweetie…this isn’t exactly like ‘Bridgerton’ is it?”
Patricia turned her head, gave me a saucy wink and said (so help me in a Cockney accent) “It sure ain’t, luv.”
And yeah, if you’re looking for a new period drama after you’ve devoured “Bridgerton” then you may wanna check out HARLOTS. But be advised that the difference between the two period dramas is as different as the spy novels of John LeCarre and Ian Fleming.
The gas that drives the show’s engine is the rivalry between Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) ruthless businesswomen running competing brothels in the dismal squalor of 18th Century London. The situation is complicated in that Margaret used to work for Lydia and broke away from her to run her own house of prostitution. For the entire series both women are at each other throats, constantly scheming, plotting and planning to undo the other. And it’s because of this rivalry that many of the shows characters meet their fates, for good or ill as they are drawn into the bloody feud.
This includes Margaret’s daughters, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) both of whom Margaret has raised up in the business. Charlotte navigates the world of the elite, the noblemen and noblewomen who are constantly on the prowl for kinky sex. When we meet Lucy in the first episode, she’s with her mother putting in her input as to how much her virginity should be sold off to in a sealed bid auction Margaret is arraigning. Now, I tell you that bit of business not to spoil things for you but to let you know what kind of people you’re dealing with if you decide to watch this show. Some people like to have somebody to root for or relate to or to be “the good guy/girl” in their TV watching. This ain’t that kind of show. There’s a moral and spiritual rot that infects the soul of every single character in the show. A rot that comes from the time and place that they live in that forces them to be willing to be degraded and to degrade in turn.
That’s not to say that there aren’t characters in here to like. I liked Margaret a lot and she’s played with enormous ferocity by Samantha Morton that blows everybody else off the screen when she’s on. That’s not the only thing enormous about her but that’s all I’ll say as I’m not trying to sleep on the couch tonight.
Lesley Manville is equally ferocious and as Lydia she makes a splendid adversary for Margaret in that she can navigate two worlds easier than Margaret, that of the streets of the poor and that of the palaces of the rich. She’s frighteningly good at manipulating people and juggles the egos and fancies of the nobility the way a monkey juggles coconuts. But as good as she is, Lydia meets her match when she starts doing business with The Spartans, a secret society of noblemen who think it good sport to rape and murder underage girls.
Kate Fleetwood plays Nancy Birch, a dominatrix who along with Danny Sapani as William North, a free black man who is the common law husband of Margaret are the authentic badasses of the show. As the show progresses, they have larger roles in the story and I was glad that they did because they’re not just supporting players. They grow into their positions as the story grows and if there’s any moral backbone to be found, they’re the ones that have it.
As you would expect from a show named HARLOTS which is about prostitution, there’s a goodly amount of sex in here. Of all kinds. But here’s the thing: for people who spend an enormous amount of their time having sex, nobody is enjoying it much. Sex is used to gain power and influence or information that can be used to gain power and influence. Oh, there are a few romantic couples who are in love but even then, that doesn’t seem to be much help when faced with the reality they live in.
After having said all that, let me sum up with this; HARLOTS is a lot of fun to watch. All of the characters have their own goals and agendas which means that there is a whole lot of backstabbing and betrayals going on. Everybody is constantly scheming against each other and this makes for TV watching that you have to pay attention to. HARLOTS isn’t the kind of show that you can have on in the background while doing something else. Characters that are mortal enemies in one episode have become allies in the next. The whores are constantly switching their allegiances from Margaret to Lydia and back. So you have to keep up otherwise you may find yourself doing a bit of rewinding to catch something you missed. Its solid entertainment if you don’t mind rolling around in the muck and mire for a bit.