The very first episode of Harlots sets the scene: It's 1763, and in Georgian London, "one in five women makes a living selling sex."
The show's premise involves a difficult balancing act. It must depict sex work without glamorising it, deliver on a world of intrigue and power struggles without getting too bogged down in historical nitpicking, underscore these ladies' crackling wit and joie de vivre without glossing over the very real dangers they face, all with a healthy dose of camp aided by a lavish costume budget. And good thing for us, creators and producers Moira Buffini and Alison Newman deliver on all of the above.
Inspired by the story of real women, Harlots is a story about sex workers, yes — but it's also about family, female friendships, gender dynamics, and money. Season 1 set up the rivalry between brothel-owner Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and her arch-rival bawd (an 18th century term for madam) Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), both of whom are trying to carve out a legacy within a crowded market, and a world that's not that kind to ambitious women. Meanwhile, Margaret's daughters, experienced courtesan Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay), and newbie ingenue Lucy (Eloise Smythe), who have followed into the family business, must learn to navigate a shifting landscape. Add to that the complicated identity and racial politics of the time, and you have a recipe for drama.
From the look of the exclusive trailer above, season 2, which premieres on US streaming service Hulu on 11th July, ups the ante. The feud between Margaret and Lydia is in full swing and more vicious than ever. Determined to help her mother, Charlotte has infiltrated Lydia's brothel, pretending to be one of her girls. And the new addition of Liv Tyler as wealthy socialite Lady Fitz is bound to make things even more interesting, not to mention toxic.
The overt feminist themes at play in the narrative are mirrored in the show's structure. Along with showrunners Buffini and Newman, the show's writing room and director's chairs are all filled by women. The result is a show about sex work that's about a lot more than just sex, and doesn't ever feel like it's exploiting it's characters.
All in all, it's the perfect way to escape the increasingly Handmaid's Tale world we're living in. Forget Gilead — Georgian London is where it's at.
Harlots season 2 premieres on Hulu on 11th July. UK release TBC.