“Downton Abbey” fans excited for Hulu’s new hour-long period drama “Harlots” should be warned — Lady Sybil Crawley is not in attendance. Instead, Jessica Brown-Findlay plays Charlotte Wells, a fiery and glamorous courtesan… And the eldest daughter of bawdy brothel madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), who’s using the world’s oldest profession to help her family climb 18th century Georgian London society.
But like Lady Sybil, whose life was changed by the burgeoning women’s lib movement of 19th century England, Charlotte Wells is a character full of vitality and rebellion, unwilling to settle for the station she’s been cast in. “Put out” since the age of 12, Charlotte has spun her special skills into London celebrity — and even managed to snag herself the comfortable position of mistress to a Baron, though she actively rebels against his possessiveness and jealousy.
Despite her mother’s insistence that men only respect property, Charlotte refuses to see herself as such.
Margaret, meanwhile, has a house full of other girls to worry about — including her youngest daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth), whose virginity she’s preparing to auction off to a growing stable of frothing suitors. With the proceeds, she anticipates moving her girls into a finer part of town, where she can finally run a proper brothel and enjoy a higher station in society… But in the midst of this social gambit, Margaret suddenly finds herself in a turf war with a high-class madame, and bitter rival, by the name of Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville).
For a show about such a titillating topic — sex and those who trade in it — this smart period piece takes an even-handed approach: There is no moralizing or victimizing of either side of the bed; no easy answer as to what, or who, is righteous and justified. Conversations, even stories, about sex workers in any era are customarily told from the outside: Even the most sympathetic or energized show or film telling a story of sex work comes to us through the lens of a third party, which can’t help but assign a moral value — whether it prescribes rehabilitation, demonstrates the dangers of living as a woman as though they’re necessary consequences, or in the majority, tries to plumb the deeps of a deep sadness, abuse, or whatever it is we’re meant to take away.
“Harlot’s” thesis, on the other hand, is simple: The most common currency in the world is power, and the power these women have is sex.
It’s a risky position, implying as it does both female agency and a value-neutral subjectivity — and so, it should come as no surprise that the enterprise is helmed by an all-female production team, led by Executive Producers Debra Hayward and Alison Owen and Executive Producer and Co-Creator Moira Buffini… Or that every episode of the first season’s ten is directed by a woman.
The sex in the show, of which there is a lot, is surprisingly genuine: Neither glamorized nor fetishized, we’re invited to look at the job like any other, as a matter of function and obligation. These women may be in the profession of fulfilling men’s fantasies, but the viewpoint never shifts to the customer’s point of view — and there’s no reason it ever should.
With “The Handmaid’s Tale” arriving April 26, Hulu is cementing itself in 2017 as the home to strong female voices — and thus fitting partner for “Harlots” to get in bed with: Hulu’s small but growing roster of original shows includes work from the unique minds of creators like Amy Poehler and Julie Klausner (“Difficult People”), Mindy Kaling (“The Mindy Project”), Jessica Goldberg (“The Path”) and Bridget Carpenter (“11.22.63”).
“Harlots” premieres Wednesday, March 29 on Hulu.