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How Do You Make A Show About Eighteenth Century Sex Workers Boring?

By Emily Cutler | TV Reviews | April 21, 2017 |

By Emily Cutler | TV Reviews | April 21, 2017 |


I shouldn’t actually call Hulu’s newest series Harlots boring. It’s not that it’s boring; it’s that it’s woefully predictable. And not focused on exactly the right elements. But we’ll get to that in a second.

First let’s do a quick recap of the show through this week’s episode four. Samantha Morton is kinder-hearted bawd Margaret Wells. She’s simultaneously trying to establish her new house in a wealthier part of town, and shepherding her younger daughter through the process of coming out in society. Eloise Smyth plays the younger daughter Lucy, who isn’t taking to whoring as quickly as her older sister Charlotte, played by Jessica Brown Findlay. Charlotte herself is struggling with the confines of her new role as Sir George Howard’s official kept lady. And finally, Lesley Manville plays established, upper-class bawd Lady Quigley, whose girls are expected to know other languages, how to play musical instruments, proper conversation patterns, history, literature, and generally how to behave like proper ladies until the boning starts.

Now quick: based only on those brief descriptions, what’s happening with each of the characters through episode four? Did you say that Lucy wants to do well in the family business, but thinks she might be better equipped to continue playing the piano for guests while other girls do the servicing? Or that Charlotte, despite her frequently advertised statement that “love doesn’t exist for a harlot,” will find herself falling in love with a man other than her keeper? And that Margaret and Lady Quigley would be at war for customers and territory, and due to a complicated history between the two of them? Also, anyone who thinks that Lady Quigley isn’t the clear villain of this show clearly didn’t read the part where I said her girls were supposed to act like ladies. The woman’s evil.

None of which is necessarily a bad thing. And definitely none of it is unwatchable. It’s exquisitely shot, and incredibly well acted (Fact: there’s something about Samantha Morton’s actual speech that means I’ll basically listen to anything she says at any point). It’s just definitely a story we’ve seen before. A ragtag group of misfit underdogs trying to take on the elite establishment. Unless they decide to switch it up entirely, I’m pretty sure Margaret and Lady Quigley will escalate their feud until it takes down Quigley, Charlotte will leave Sir George for her Irish crush, and Lucy will find her way into harlotdom to her mother’s unexpected chagrin.

All of which would only be mildly annoying were it not for the fact that the show has the ability to focus on other, more interesting things. Like say what it was really like to be a courtesan in eighteenth century London. If one in five women in London made their work in the sex trade, as the show tells us at the beginning of the first episode, the realities of an eighteenth century sex worker would be wildly different from how we view sex work. Tell us about that. You’ve got members of the House of Lords openly bringing their kept mistresses/prostitutes to clubs and parties. Was this as widely accepted as the show leads us to believe it was? Was there any stigma attached to being a harlot? Or was it, as Margaret says, the choice between being some form of sex worker or a shopkeeper’s wife? If the only way a woman could make her way was by attaching herself to a man, would anyone draw distinct differences between the different kinds of attachments?

Again, none of which is to say that the show isn’t enjoyable. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near as risqué as Hulu advertised it to be. This is essentially a dramatic, eighteenth century version of DodgeBall. With just slightly less kink.

For a different take, see also Hannah Sole’s review of Harlot.

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