100 Pilots in 100 Days: Harlots

When it was originally on: 2017-present

Original network: ITB Encore (U.K.) or Hulu (U.S.)

Where you can stream it now: Hulu

Had I seen it before: I’ve see all but the last couple episodes.

What IMDb says: Brothel owner Margaret Wells struggles to raise her daughters in London during the 18th century.

Why I picked it: Harlots has been a favorite show of mine since its first season in 2017, and I’ve always been a little bit irked that it never seemed to find much of a following, at least in the U.S. Yet on rotten tomatoes it has a 97% among critics and a 91% among audiences. It’s one of those shows that not many people are watching, but those that ARE watching it love it. It was born in the late 2010s when more and more people were realizing the need for female-centric narratives in television, and yet not enough people are lauding this as the interesting, nuanced, feminist story that it is. So here I am, kindly requesting you to read my thoughts about it about it.

What I liked: The Margaret/Charlotte power struggle is utterly delightful. They’re both strong-willed, intelligent women who have several tense moments throughout this pilot. And yet neither is really  “the bad guy.” In fact, they each have a lot of likable traits in common: they’re both incredibly protective of Lucy; they both love to assert power and control whenever they can; and they’re both the type to stand up for what they believe to be right. That is precisely why they’re clashing so often. It’s a great show to watch if you want to learn more about that thing where you write two characters that are simultaneously protagonists and antagonists to each other.

The Harlots pilot also does an effortless job of creating both its and world and its characters in an organic way. Sometimes period pieces will go too far out of its way to establish its setting, but that doesn’t really here. We learn about the world by hearing our characters talk about it, and we learn about our characters by hearing their thoughts on their world. For example, midway through there is a raid of the brothels, which gives us insight into the setting. But we also get insight from how different characters react to the raid. The fact that Margaret will send clientele out the door with no pants because protecting the girls who work for her is top priority speaks loads about her. Sure, she’s a madam, but she’s never going to put a man’s orgasm above a woman’s safety.

All of this makes for a show that portrays sex work as a legitimate choice, while also contextualizing that choice. It’s okay to feel sorry for these women while also recognizing that they still have agency over their own bodies. It’s also a clever twist on the more common “who am I going to marry?” stories of this time period.

What I didn’t like: I wish they could’ve put a little bit more time into developing the women who work on the street rather than in a brothel. There is one who gets a few scenes here and there.

Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes. I’m mad at myself for not finishing Season 3 (omg season 3 is so good) but in my defense I thought I’d finished it already. Damn these weekly release streaming shows.

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