I’m pretty sure that Carnival Row, Amazon Prime’s new fairytale fantasy enterprise, is actual magic. Specifically, it has the ability to stretch time so that watching any given episode feels like being trapped in some sort of never-ending purgatory. The first season is only eight episodes (blissfully conservative compared to the bloat we’re used to over on Netflix) and thankfully the last two episodes almost make up for the interminable slog of the previous six, but still — it’s entirely possible that I’m still watching Carnival Row as I write this, stuck in some cruel prank of Queen Mab. In fact, I’ll always be watching Carnival Row, and I always have been watching it, and the fact that this show somehow exists as a near-eternity in the mind of the viewer is probably the most interesting thing about it.
It didn’t have to be that way, though. On paper, Carnival Row has almost everything going for it. It has the boundless coffers of a streaming platform looking for a hit franchise at its disposal, and it shows in every frame. It has plenty of star power, from the cheekbone-blessed central duo of Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne to the serious chops of Jared Harris and Indira Varma, all surrounded by a supporting mob filled with faces you’ll vaguely recognize from something, somewhere. And it has a concept that is, frankly, brilliant. I like to imagine that series creators Travis Beacham and René Echevarria took a look at Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and thought, “OK so what if we did ALL THAT, but with fairies and racism?” The result is a little bit grimdark, a little bit steampunk, with a wealth of folkloric creatures to tap into (Pucks, Kobolds, Trows, and even Werewolves) — and, of course, enough boobs and butts and blood to let you know it’s serious. There’s murder! There’s mystery! There’s splatters of viscera and monsters in the dark! There’s political intrigue, and prophecy, and romance, and secrets, and some late-stage incest! Simply put, the show has all the ingredients necessary to be great, or at least guiltily pleasurable. And yet the sum of all those parts somehow manages to be achingly dull.
There’s a lot of world-building back story to Carnival Row — details which are both essential to understanding the proceedings but also weirdly underdeveloped. Basically, a few years ago there was a war over control of the fae homeland. And on one side was the Burgue, which is where most of the show takes place — a sort of London-ish city-state that sent soldiers to protect the fae but also probably just wanted the local resources. And on the other side was “The Pact,” a threat that is… evil, I guess? They turn soldiers into werewolves, and that’s all I’ve got. Anyway, it was during this war that a Burgue soldier named Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) met and fell in love with a sassy fairy librarian guard named Vignette (Cara Delevigne). And then, for reasons that were for her own good and made zero sense, he had people tell her he’d died and he went home.
Fast forward to now, when Vignette arrives at the Burgue after spending a few years helping fae refugees secure safe passage out of their homeland in exchange for indentured servitude. She, too, becomes a servant, which lasts like an episode before she escapes and joins the Dark Ravens, which are basically the fae mafia. She also quickly discovers that Philo is alive! And she’s pissed! Which is a smart move on the show’s part, because honestly their love story is pretty unconvincing. I mean, you know they’re meant to be together because they have the prettiest cheekbones in all the land, but their one wartime sex scene is so bad it reminded me of that painful pool escapade from Showgirls, and even when she’s angry, she still yells at him from like two inches away while looking like she wants to kiss him because the show takes “sexual tension” very seriously. So instead of, like, building to a reconciliation, the season lets each character go about their own lives while occasionally bumping into one another long enough to glare longingly/angrily at each other, secure in the knowledge that when the plot demands it, they can be rejoined in truth.
Philo is now a constable, and he’s tasked with stomping around the city solving murders. He’s not necessarily the smartest detective, but he is the least prejudiced one, which means he’s the only guy seeking justice for the refugees. You see, just because the Burgue tried to help the fae, it doesn’t mean its citizens are particularly welcoming of its winged/horned neighbors. And Philo himself isn’t openminded so much as he is, uh, invested in the fae plight — because he’s secretly half fae himself. Over the course of the series Philo ends up on the trail of two different serial killers — a racist slasher named Unseelie Jack, and a magical fairytale Frankenstein’s Monster what may be mysteriously linked with Philo himself.
Meanwhile: Politics and class struggles! The racism that pervades the Burgue is explored in pretty much every plot thread, but in each case it amounts to a vague repetition of “we hate them because they’re different” without any specificity or sense of history. There’s the city’s Parliament, which is governed by a liberal chancellor (Jared Harris) who is barely maintaining his majority against the “THEY TOOK OUR JOBS!” fear-mongering of his opposition — while simultaneously worrying that the opposition is behind the kidnapping of his son Jonah (Arty Froushan), who was snatched from a fairy brothel on Carnival Row. Jonah, by the way, supposedly has a Very Important Destiny, according to his mother Piety (Indira Varma), who has been known to put her trust in fae magic over whatever the Burgish religion is. Then there’s the upper-crust Spurnrose siblings, Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) and Ezra (Andrew Gower), who have squandered their inheritance and need an influx of cash fast, lest they lose their very fancy house. So they put aside their sense of propriety and help usher their controversial new neighbor, a nouveau riche Puck named Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi), into high society in exchange for investment help. And speaking of Pucks, there’s a rising cult of them forming in the shadows of the city, sick of being oppressed and seeking violent retribution — yet these fae terrorists are a barely developed afterthought to the story. Then again, so are the Dark Ravens and their underworld, or the various religions and cultures that melt in the pot of this city — all the details that should add texture to life in this world, but instead become vague distractions.
When I reviewed Netflix’s Wu Assassins, another over-the-top fantasy, I admitted that it took some big swings and that ultimately I enjoyed the good parts enough to forgive the show its flaws. And here too, I can respect the size of the swing that Carnival Row took. It had a lot of ideas, and being “too much” isn’t always a bad thing! Unfortunately, adding a bunch of elements isn’t the same thing as developing those elements, and the show itself seemed to get distracted by its own world building — losing any sense of urgency or priority along the way. Which also means that I don’t think it ever found its strengths. The fact that this story weaves together enough threads for a climax in the final episodes is more surprising than it is satisfying, because it all seems less a result of careful plotting and more a result of the clock winding down on the season. But it does wrap up, and in a way that leaves you with just enough curiosity to carry you into already-guaranteed second season. The show still has a lot of potential, and maybe next season it’ll finally soar. Or at least be less tiring to endure.
Header Image Source: Amazon Prime