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5 TV Shows You Must Watch if You Love Harlots

July 8, 2019
7 min read

If someone asks you what has been the most marketable commodity since the dawn of time and continues to be so till date, what would your answer be? Well, if you ponder over the question for a while, you’ll soon realize that the commodity in question is sex. Nothing in the history of mankind has been as popular and notorious as the trade of sex. Naturally, as a result, prostitution is the oldest profession known to human beings. Throughout history, tales have been written on the trade of lust. We find such examples even in the ancient epics written both in the East and the West. One such tale written in recent times is the novel ‘The Covent Garden Ladies’ written by British historian and novelist Hallie Rubenhold. The book fell in the hands of Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, who decided to convert it into a television series, and thus ‘Harlots‘ was born.

The story is set in London in the middle of the 18th century where sex has become a major industry because of the extreme patriarchal nature of the society. There were only two options available for women to achieve economic prosperity. They could either marry a well-off man, or had to enter the prostitution trade. The central characters of this story are the owners of two such brothels – Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley. When Margaret wants to move her brother to Soho to serve a better class of people, she faces opposition from Lydia, and thus begins their rivalry.

Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville both play their characters Margaret and Lydia respectively with great command and ease. It is their performances that take ‘Harlots’ to greater heights as a gripping tale of English society in the eighteenth century. If you loved watching this show and are looking for more titles that explore similar themes and ideas, then we’v got you covered. Here’s the list of best shows similar to ‘Harlots’ that are our recommendations. You can watch several of these series like ‘Harlots’ on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.

5. Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007-2011)

The story of how this series got made is as interesting as the series itself. When trying to buy the rights to the blogs of a writer called ‘Belle de Jour’ (inspired by the Luis Bunuel movie of the same name), Avril MacRory and Paul Duane came across Brooke Magnanti, who herself was working as a call girl while working on her doctoral thesis. The story of the show is inspired by the various experiences Magnanti had in the business. Magnanti’s blog, ‘Belle de Jour: Diary of a London call girl’ became an instant hit and even managed to win Guardian newspaper’s Best British Weblog 2003. Her identity was well-discussed in the media, and finally, when Magnanti decided to come out with her identity, it became national news.

In the series, the leading character is called Hannah Baxter. Besides being the protagonist, she is also the narrator of the tale. We follow Hannah’s life as she tries to balance her personal and professional lives. The reason that this series has found its mention on this list is that just like in ‘Harlots’, here we witness how prostitution plays a huge role in today’s world and how it has become the life of countless women. ‘Secret Diary Of A Call Girl’ received positive critical acclaim from most critics despite some feminists claiming that the series objectifies women.

4. The Crimson Petal and the White (2011)

This four-part miniseries is based on the Michael Faber book of the same name and follows the characters William Rackham and a prostitute he regularly frequents called Sugar. Rackham is the heir to a business empire but has no interest in joining his father’s affairs. William is greatly troubled by the fact that his wife is slowly losing her sanity and finds Sugar as his only source of solace. Eventually, Sugar moves into the Rackham household on the pretense of being a governess and starts taking care of William’s wife as well, who begins to believe Sugar is her savior.

The interesting camerawork and the music used in the series elevates the story beyond the narrative into something deeper. The performances by the members of the cast and Marc Munden’s direction, which makes the Rackham household into a claustrophobic den, also received much admiration. Struggle for survival is the main theme of ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. William, his wife Agnes, and Sugar herself are all doing certain things because they need to exist. William’s wife finds faith in Sugar because all around she sees hopelessness. It is the new member of her household who attracts Agnes’ attention. Similarly, the entire issue on which ‘Harlots’ is based on is also the struggle of Margaret and her girls to keep their heads above water in this dangerously competitive world.

3. Jamestown (2017-2019)

Carnival Films, the company which produced the hit TV series ‘Downton Abbey‘, is also the producer of this show, written by Bill Gallagher. When America was first colonized by the British, they referred to the place as the New World. The story of ‘Jamestown‘ is based on the first settlers who came into the New World. As soon as the first men arrived, they called for several women from their native land whom they would marry. It was a sort of contract made then where if a person paid for a woman’s passage to the New World, she had to marry him upon her arrival. With these women, who later join the men, come our three leading characters — Jocelyn, Alice, and Verity. It is their struggle of survival in this unknown land that becomes the central narrative of the show.

What is noticeable in this case is that historically, women have been treated as objects to be bought and sold by men. Though Jocelyn, Alice, and Verity are not strictly prostitutes, the way they are treated by these men shows us that there is not much of a difference either. In this highly patriarchal world where women have almost no agency at all, our protagonists struggle to survive, just like the women in ‘Harlots’. Their vastly different yet similar lives is what makes these characters from these two shows strikingly similar. ‘Jamestown’ received mixed critical acclaim, with some reviewers praising it to be a gripping tale, while some chastised its soap opera-like qualities.

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2. The Deuce (2017-)

The Deuce‘ is the brainchild of David Simon and George Pelecanos and stars Hollywood powerhouses Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco. The series is set in the 1970s, the time when pornography was made legal in America and the porn industry saw a massive boom in terms of production and distribution. Gyllenhaal’s character Eileen Merrell is the protagonist of the tale, and it is her foray into the porn industry from her career as a prostitute that forms the crux of the story. The inclusion of this series on this list is interesting because it shows us how the lives of prostitutes have never changed much throughout history. Be it eighteenth century England or New York in the 1970s, there have always been women who have served the sexual needs of men while themselves living in poor and unhealthy conditions. ‘The Deuce’ did receive praise from critics mainly because of the gripping narrative and Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance.

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1. Cranford (2007)

‘Cranford’ is not a tale about prostitutes, but it still manages to find its place on this list because the series is about a group of women who have decided to determine their own future and live together, not allowing men to dictate their lives. Most of these women who live in the fictional town of Cranford are either widows or singles. They do not hide under any pretense and are always upfront about their choices and preferences regarding men. When a new doctor comes to town, some of these women woo him. The story is inspired by three novellas written by the renowned Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell. The powerful performances of the actors received widespread acclaim from critics.

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