“It’s 1763. London is booming, and one in five women makes a living selling sex.”
The opening words of Hulu’s new series, “Harlots,” are there to make it clear that this is one British television drama that won’t be sipping tea in the drawing room. Nor will it be passing judgment on the many working girls proffering their wares in a decidedly different kind of a room. (Or not even in a room.)
But while the intro may be time- and place-specific it could be referring to the medium as much as the message. The only place with a higher percentage of prostitutes than old London, it seems, is television.
From “Gunsmoke’s” Miss Kitty to the nameless naked women in every other episode of “Game of Thrones,” call girls — hookers, courtesans, painted ladies, saloon girls, street walkers, strumpets, whores, concubines and harlots — have been dependable mainstays, sidekicks and props in shows for and about men (i.e. many prime-time dramas).
While the details of their jobs have become more explicit over the years — the saloon girls of “Bonanza” never seemed to leave that bar, but decades later, “Deadwood” couldn’t get them out of those brass beds upstairs — their representation as characters of substance has not.
Beyond the robotic sex machines of “Westworld,” try coming up with five names of famous TV prostitutes the same way you can cowboys, cops or criminal masterminds. (And no, Huggy Bear of “Starsky & Hutch” doesn’t count.)
Faceless as they are, television’s ladies for hire have certainly multiplied. If you were to judge the female population based off their representation in the last decade’s programming alone, it would appear more like 4 out of 5 women sell sex for money, and they all happen to look like swimsuit models — just without the swimsuit.
You’ll find them in, to name just a few, “The Girlfriend Experience,” “Emerald City,” “Billions,” “Anger Management,” “Goliath,” “The Knick,” “Taboo,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Ripper Street,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “True Detective,” “Training Day,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Cards,” “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” “Hawaii Five-0” and the various flavors of “Law & Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS.” Remember the HBO drinking game — take a shot every time they show a scene in the whorehouse or strip club? Audiences are still drunk.
And viewed through the male gaze of the hero, as they almost always are, the working women of TV are a fail-safe plot device. They’re the hooker with a heart of gold that he hopelessly falls for, the imperiled hooker he saves, the hooker he brazenly uses, the dead hooker who’s a clue in the case he must solve. They’re the perfect backdrop to help define his dilemma, and require almost no setup when it comes to staging those ubiquitous, hot sex scenes in unlikely places. And that’s when they are afforded the dignity of being a plot device as opposed to mere titillating window dressing.
But with “Harlots,” television’s favorite wallpaper now has its own show.
The Hulu series, which premieres Wednesday, doesn’t just visit the brothel, it lives there among the women of London’s 18th century sex trade. It’s their perspective that drives the narrative and, it turns out, prostitution looks a lot different through the eyes of a woman in the business. (A British co-production, the show airs two days earlier on ITV.)
“Harlots” is a frank depiction of women forced into the profession by poverty, class or birth, but not an entirely desperate one. The sex scenes here are neither titillating nor horrifying, gratuitously explicit or unnecessarily judgmental. They are simply a function of the job.
Bodices aren’t ripped in passion, but rather skirts lifted for the sake of practicality and time. The quickies in an alley are just that, quickies, and it’s onto the next John … or maybe a lunch break.
The women’s lives beyond these paid transactions is where the real story is.
The Wells family is building a small empire off their hard work. Margaret (Samantha Morton) owns and runs a brothel in a hardscrabble section of the city. She was born into this life: Her own mother sold her at age 10 for a pair of shoes. But she’s made the best of the hand she was dealt, and unlike most of the women in 1700s London, she is a small business owner. Now Margaret is pimping out her own daughters, Lucy (Eloise Smyth) and Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay).
Her appalling choice is not without guilt, but whatever maternal instincts she has are countered by her goal to raise enough money to buy a home in the upscale neighborhood of Soho.
“Money is a woman’s only power in this world,” says Margaret. “This city’s made of our flesh, every beam, every brick. We’ll have our piece of it.”
There is competition, however. Formidable madam Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), who runs a classier crosstown bordello in a more respectable part of London, is intent on destroying Margaret’s business. Their brilliant and ruthless tactics to undermine each other rival that of the competing agencies of “Mad Men.”
The eight-part series was influenced by “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies,” a directory to London whoring written by patrons and pimps in the 1700s. The guide, published for nearly 40 years, was like a Yelp for sex trade customers that listed the specialties, talents and physical attributes of prostitutes in the highly trafficked area.
Created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, the show’s team of producers, directors and writers is largely female, which partially explains why “Harlots” is a fresh look at an age-old profession — and television trope.
The casting of Brown Findlay (formerly the feisty Lady Sybil of “Downton Abbey”) as the steely-eyed, calculating survivor Charlotte is a statement in itself. She moves among the powdered-wig upper crust with the confidence of a professional woman, which in contrast to the limited roles for ladies of that era, is empowering.
But “Harlots” is not a feminist proclamation that recasts the sex trade as something noble. It’s a series in which the prostitutes are treated by the show’s writers with the same levels of humanity and importance as the men who’ve historically used and defined them. Here, the Johns play a supporting role to the show’s real stars: complex, shrewd and conflicted women who, just like their customers, have ambitions and goals.