A minute or two into the new Hulu series “Harlots,” you can tell you’re a very long way from “Pretty Woman.” The show, set in 18th-century London, is all about hookers, but it’s definitely not a fairy tale. It’s a bawdy, funny, gritty, and at times moving drama that flies in the face most of the period costume dramas we’ve seen on TV over the years.
The story focuses on two powerful brothel owners competing for clients and for respect. Margaret Wells is played by Samantha Morton, who can do no wrong in my book. Morton’s work, from a delightful turn in the 1997 “Tom Jones” miniseries to her Oscar-nominated performances in “Sweet and Lowdown” and “In America,” is rarely less than captivating. Here, she brings heft and fury to a realist who wants to move her business to a classier neighborhood. At one point, she sells her daughter’s virginity (twice!) to make enough money to uproot.
But the neighborhood she has her eye on belongs to Lydia Quidley, played by Lesley Manville, whose work in Mike Leigh films and “Masterpiece” miniseries has been flawless. Lydia is a formidable foe, and watching these two women act together as rivals is never less than a treat. After the steel-willed Lydia sends the cops to raid Margaret’s house, she begins to steal Margaret’s workers. Don’t worry, Margaret has a plan.
Also in the cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, who was Lady Sybil on “Downton Abbey,” as Margaret’s older daughter, who is dodging a wealthy man who essentially wants to buy her.
The show — produced, written, and directed by women — doesn’t make the sex very sexy. It’s definitely work for the women. And while “Harlots,” which premieres Wednesday, is often quite humorous, it has a bleak undercurrent that colors everything — the reality that these women faced at a time when, according to the show, one of every five women in London was a sex worker. If you weren’t married and/or wealthy, you often wound up on the street. We want to help them out of the life, even as we understand the constraints of their time and place, and even as we admire and laugh at the ways in which they find and exert their power.