In 1763 London, Harlots baldly reveals in its opening scene, one in five women made a living by selling sex. It’s a provocative statistic that—coupled with images of petticoats trailing in the filthy streets and corseted bosoms thrust skyward—sets the series up to be a genially bawdy historical drama. But Harlots, a co-production with ITV that debuts on Hulu Wednesday, is something more complex. Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, it takes an unflinchingly clear-eyed look at the 18th-century sex trade, seen from the perspective of the women who participate in its frequently brutal and unforgiving hierarchy. It doesn’t romanticize sex work, but neither does it ignore the realities of an economy that left women with few other options.
In that, Harlots mostly pulls off a tricky balance of substance and tone. It’s infinitely more jocular than Starz’s 2016 show The Girlfriend Experience, which undertook a similarly ambiguous and anatomical analysis of sex work, but no less thoughtful when it comes to the dynamics of sex and power. Margaret Wells (the superbly accomplished Samantha Morton) is a “bawd” (a brothel keeper) in Covent Garden, with aspirations of setting up a more refined shop in Soho. Her girls operate a strata above the women working on the street, but are looked down upon by Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), who runs a higher-class establishment for noblemen. Loftier still is Margaret’s daughter Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay, better known as Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil), who’s become the mistress to a buffoon of an aristocrat (Fleabag’s Hugh Skinner).