“Harlots,” on Hulu, is certainly audacious. And ambitious. But whether it will be able to pull off it’s fine-line feminist balancing act remains to be seen; this show may end up groundbreaking or it may end up a train wreck.

In the meantime it’s hard to look away.

Understand this is a show about warring brothels in 18th century London, where one in five women made their living as sex workers. While that may sound like fertile sexist pig territory, “Harlots” is actually written, directed and produced by women, with all of the chief characters played by women.

And prestige women at that. Two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton plays lower-end madame Margaret Wells. Margaret’s older daughter, Charlotte (“Downton Abbey” beauty Jessica Brown Findlay), is already one of the town’s most notable courtesans. As the show opens, Margaret is auctioning off the virginity of her younger daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), to the highest bidder.

The goal? To earn enough to move her brothel to a more genteel section of town. Unfortunately, Margaret’s sworn enemy and fellow madame, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) inhabits that genteel section, as well, and wants no competition. As a result, the two women have their knives drawn and there will be blood.

There will also be sex and flesh, though not much apparent joy involved in either. And there will be lots of foolish, lust-crazed men made to look silly, for the most part.

But three episodes in — Hulu is dropping one a week in its irritating way — it’s clear “Harlots” isn’t about sex; it’s about power and manipulation and struggle and survival. For these women, hoisting their skirts is like pointing a gun. They use what weapons they have.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.



Nudity, sexuality, language

Now streaming on Hulu

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