Amazon’s new original show Carnival Row is an interesting one. It’s the studio’s first attempt at a fantasy world, one with an additional Neo-Victorian twist. It stars both Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as Rycroft Philostrate and Vignette Stonemoss respectively. The two play star-crossed lovers, separated by war, who cross each other’s paths once again. Rycroft—or Philo—is a detective that follows a string of grisly murders, while Vignette is a recently immigrated Fae forced to navigate the rising tensions amongst the local population in The Burgue.
The Burgue is the main town in which the show takes place. It’s a city that is mostly a human settlement, but thanks to a recent increase in the immigration population, far more than just humans reside in the town. There are mythical beings such as Faes, Centaurs, and Satyrs mixed in as well. They serve as the outcasts of society, and most of the core conflict comes from disagreements about their place in society. Sound familiar? With the social climate of the world in the state that it’s in, the show’s release is well timed. The political messages that the show has to deliver are loud and clear. So if that’s an immediate turn-off, then this might not be your show. While the show follows Philo and Vignette, the thematic core of the show lies in the topics of immigration and racism.
The focus on these social issues certainly brings depth and more personal meaning to a lot of the show’s proceedings. While this can be a good thing, it tends to backfire more often than not. What do I mean by this? Well, for one, there’s nothing subtle about their approach. This can lead to clunky dialogue, and situations in general. Also the show often focuses so much on said social issues and injustices (while also tying it all back to our current world), that other important elements can fall to the wayside. Countless plot threads are contrived, with character motivations simply being forgotten—or simply going unexplained. One thing is for sure: It’s not often a very graceful show when it comes down to the inner workings of its narrative.
There is a point in the season where we get to explore outside of The Burgue, and the titular Carnival Row. While It’s short lived, it does show one glaring shortcoming: the show may be too self-contained for its own good. For a tale that is trying to build an ever expanding original fantasy world, 90% of the first season’s run time is cramped into the confines of a single street (and it’s boroughs). There is so much that is merely hinted at, or mentioned in passing, that is begging for further exploration. Hopefully this is something that the show can look to for improvement, seeing as they are already filming its sophomore season.
The strongest thing that the show has going for it is the world that it has created. The creative team behind the show certainly deserves credit. Creating something like this from scratch isn’t easy. The edgy Neo-Victorian/Fantasy mix (with some medieval vibes sprinkled on top) is wonderfully unique. The tale that Carnival Row weaves over the course of its eight episode run is very mature and dark. While the dark tone is a fitting choice, I couldn’t help but think at times that a little more liveliness to the proceedings wouldn’t have hurt. Nonetheless, there is plenty of blood, guts, and sex to be had in this fairytale. You ever see Faeries having sex six feet above the ground? Cause you will here.
Now obviously with so many mythical and magical beings, the show has plenty of SFX work at play. There seems to be a good amount of practical work on display–and it looks good. From the Fae’s wings, to the Satyr’s (or Puck’s) horns and legs, they all look and play realistically. The gore SFX in the show is also very well done. There is a particular element of the effects work in the show that I took issue with, and sadly it’s one that is on display often: the Fae’s flight. It just never looks fluid or natural. Simply put, you can tell that the actors are waiting for the ropes/pulley/rigs to do their job to get them where they are going. The stiffness thanks to this is easily noticed, which is a shame. I can’t recall a time that a Fae’s flight didn’t look awkward.
When it comes to the performances of Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, neither bring to the table any particularly memorable performances. Instead both simply get the job done. The same can be said for their chemistry. It’s nothing to write home about, but nothing to complain about either. These same notes can pretty much extend to most of the other cast. Though Tamzin Merchant’s Imogen Spurnrose and David Gyasi’s Mr. Agreus would be the two of the more notable members of the cast. Other cast members include Jared Harris (as Absalon Breakspear), Andrew Gower (as Ezra Spurnrose), and Indira Varma (as Piety Breakspear).
Carnival Row’s first season brings a brand new unique world to life, one of fantasy no less—something that is all too rare these days. Sadly the final product is flawed, and the end result is a world that simply doesn’t click, and characters that don’t resonate as much as you’d like. Yet even with all of its flaws, Carnival Row is not a bad show. It just never reaches any distinguishable heights, and in turn simply exists. If you have a strong, particular interest in fantasy stories or victorian styled outings, then maybe this show is for you. It’s hard to recommend it otherwise. It’s not bad by any means, but simply unmemorable. If you have too much on your playlist, then it may be best to move on from this one.
Carnival Row premiere’s exclusively on Amazon’s Prime Video Service on August 30th.