Look, I know that there are way too many television shows, and who has the time, and it’s intensely annoying when people are like, “You’ve got to watch this show.” (I’ll watch The Shield when I get around to watching The Shield, alright?) So, this is not a demand. This is not even a request. This is just me, stating as a plain fact that if more people don’t start watching Hulu’s criminally overlooked 18th century British sex worker dramedy Harlots, I’m going to absolutely lose it.
Harlots is currently airing its second season on Hulu, but has generated little buzz despite being routinely excellent. (GQ recently wrote a piece about how it’s the show you should be watching this summer, which is a terrific step in the right direction. I want all media properties to go fangirl for Harlots the way it seemed like all of a sudden every single person writing for every single entertainment vertical at every single media company started evangelizing for Succession like it was their pathway to salvation. This is no disrespect to Succession—Cousin Greg for life!—but Harlots deserves the same hype.)
The raucous look at Georgian England’s sex trade is both written and directed by women, and it stars a strong lineup of actors. Samantha Morton leads off as Margaret Wells, a “bawd” trying to provide a humane environment for the “harlots” she employs, even though she rarely succeeds. (She auctions off her youngest daughter’s virginity in the first season.) Lesley Manville plays her archrival, Lydia Quigley, a diabolical madame who kidnaps virgins and favors elaborate yak-hair wigs. In its second season, the show introduces Liv Tyler’s Lady Fitzwilliam, who has several secrets and terrific dresses. There’s no “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché here, just scheming, plotting, romance, and scandal. It’s a show that treats sex and gender dynamics with matter-of-fact horror and humor that feels honest but not solemn.
Harlots vaguely resembles other, far more popular shows, but I think it’s better than them all. It’s very much like fellow Hulu offering The Handmaid’s Tale in that it’s a female-driven glimpse at an impossibly grim patriarchy, but it’s not like The Handmaid’s Tale because the second season is a juicy romp instead of a dour slog. It’s like The Crown in that it’s a lavish period piece about old-timey England, but it’s not like The Crown because its main character isn’t an obscenely rich bore who loves corgis. It’s like Downton Abbey because it’s a lavish period piece about old-timey England, but it’s not like Downton Abbey because Jessica Brown Findlay plays a charming prostitute who is (and remains) alive instead of a saintly aristocrat who dies. If you like The Crown and Downton Abbey but do not like Harlots, you are an incorrigible Tory snob. And while most British period pieces are, uh, not diverse, Harlots avoids a blindingly homogenous cast. There are multiple lesbian story lines, there are many characters played by black actors, there are characters with disabilities, there are different body types (although cleavage is basically mandatory and always aggressive).
The costumes are ornate. The set pieces capture both the grit and gloom of 18th century England’s streets and the gross extravagance of its aristocratic pleasure houses. The acting is superb, the plot twists are numerous, and the wigs are tremendous. There’s been barely any press for the show, which sometimes makes me feel like the entire program has been a hallucination; a sly, luxurious historical drama created and starring a wide array of brilliant women does feel like a dream. I haven’t even talked about how entertaining the dialogue is yet, but it’s raunchy and perfect episode after episode. “I want to live, Charlie!” the ambitious harlot Emily Lacey yells at her boyfriend in a scene this season. “Long enough to see my muff turn silver!” If there is any justice in this television-saturated world, Harlots will get to show us that well-aged, silver muff.