Carnival Row (2019)

Season 1: Episodes 01 – 08

The hunt is on for something to replace Game of Thrones as the ‘adult’ fantasy TV sensation du jour, and the next candidate to slip onto our screens is Amazon’s steampunk-ish fantasy Carnival Row, which drops its first eight-episode season on Friday, August 30. After a sluggish start it settles into a decent enough groove, but you’ll need to shoulder your way past the first three episodes’ place-setting nonsense to get the real meat of the matter (I suspect that’s why so many reviews have been damning — it really does pick up in the back half, and time-pressed hacks often can’t manage that level of dedication at your average freelancer’s rate of pay).

Still, even then your enjoyment is going to depend very much on your fondness for fairy prostitutes and faun gangsters, not to mention your capacity for absorbing a staggering amount of setting and character info in a relatively condensed period of time. There’s a wiki up already, and given it predates any of the public actually seeing the show, it was definitely seeded by the publicity team in the hopes that fans, once actual fans come along, will continue their work. It’s pretty sparse right now, though. Carnival Row positively drips with jargon and backstory, and while it’s easy enough to shorthand as Gangs of New Fairyland or Freaky Blinders, really grappling with the series takes a bit of effort.

‘You won’t find any princesses here.’

So, thank God I’m here to do that for you, hey? Creators Travis Beacham, Pacific Rim (2013), and René Echevarria, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99), set their scene in the quasi-Victorian (the queen, not the state) city of The Burgue (London with a fantasy facelift), which has seen an influx of refugees due to recent strife on a distant continent, Tirnanoc — and if you twigged that it’s supposed to sound like ‘Tír na nÓg,’ give yourself a nerd point. And if you earned that point, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that those aforementioned refugees are magical creatures, because Tirnanoc is basically Fairyland and, having been displaced by human (read: European) nations invading to plunder their riches, its various peoples — fairies, fauns, trow (trolls, basically) and more — have to build new lives in a city that mistrusts and fears them.

One of these recent arrivals is fae smuggler Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne with wings and an Irish accent) who has had to flee war-torn Tirnanoc after things got too hot for her. Finding her feet in the Burgue, she comes across an unexpected familiar face in the form of her ex-lover, human soldier-turned-cop Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), who is himself busy trying to solve a series of Jack-the-Ripper-esque murders in the titular fairy slum, Carnival Row. And off we go.

It’s all a racial allegory, of course, and actually not nearly as clumsy as what we got in Netflix’s Bright (2017) not too long ago, although it’s not a patch on, say, Alien Nation (especially the eighties/ nineties TV series) and District 9 (2009). One of the ways Carnival Row parallels actual 19th-century history is showing how immigrant populations, deprived of economic and political opportunity, will spawn culturally homogeneous criminal gangs — your Italian mafia, Irish mob, Chinese tongs, and so on. Vignette is our ingress into the Burgue version of this, hooking up with a fae mob not too far into the series.

Bloom’s in the room

It’s this and other examinations of culture and class, with the attendant fantastical window dressing, that are the most interesting elements in play. Elsewhere we get an impoverished human family, the Spurnroses (Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant), courting the favor of Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi), a wealthy faun who wants to be accepted into polite human society — he has the cash, they have the connections, but how far will their forced welcome stretch? We also spend some time in the halls of power watching the political machinations while around Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his brood, Piety (Indira Varma) and Jonah (Arty Froushan). How these plots will spin out in future episodes is unclear (but at least we know we are getting more — season two has already been commissioned); suffice to say that in many ways Carnival Row is more interesting the further it sprawls away from its central narrative track and ostensible lead characters.

Which sounds like a bit of a diss at Bloom and Delevingne, but they’re actually doing pretty decent work (Delevingne’s accent takes some work, aurally and conceptually, to get around, though). It’s just that we’ve seen this kind of star-cross’d romance before, and there’s not enough new here to really spark an interest. The series really founders in episode three, Kingdoms of the Moon, which is a long flashback to their wartime romance that stops the narrative momentum of the actual plot dead in its tracks when we should be building up steam. It’s a baffling creative decision, and if people are switching off at that point, it’s hard to blame them. Things improve when Vignette and Philo are actually doing things, rather than remembering things: when some kind of horrific beast is leaving limbs and viscera strewn across the cobblestones, and the unknown dangers of the underworld are pressing in on our plucky heroine, why would we want to kill an hour taking in backstory that has little to no immediate effect on contemporary events?

Danger approaches.

It’s worth pushing on, though – Carnival Row has a lot to offer, even if it’s clear that it hasn’t quite found its footing yet. Once it gets past the seemingly mandatory Boobs! Violence! Boobs and Violence! beats common to almost all prestige television at the moment, it settles into an interesting tempo and tone, one that may be familiar to fans of modern urban fantasy but will hopefully prove intriguingly exotic to genre virgins. The plot threads left dangling at the season’s close are aching to be followed up, and a number of character revelations cry out for further elaboration. Carnival Row isn’t going to be an instant smash, and that’s fine (mistrust the consensus, folks); let’s hope it draws enough of a committed crowd to get to where it wants to and continues to fill out its fictional world along the way.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Carnival Row is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video