Amazon’s ‘Carnival Row’ Is an Entertaining Oddity of Pure Originality
When Amazon presents “Carnival Row” as an original series they aren’t kidding. This new fantasy drama is fully conjured afresh, borrowing from sci-fi, noir, steampunk, even Victorian novels. All these elements serve to make this oddity of a vision always intriguing, if not visually entrancing, and even as the plot spreads itself out into too many threads. If the tone begins to drag in an episode it’s still never boring to just gaze at.
The series is set in a world where the fae, a mythical race of winged beings (essentially a fancier version of fairies), used to live in harmony until humans (of course) arrived to conquer their rich territories. Per the show’s lengthy intro, the “Republic of the Burgue” withdrew, leaving the fae under the thumb of “The Pact.” In the present the fae escape their war-torn homeland into the Burgue, where they tend to gather at a spot called “Carnival Row.” It’s a Victorian-style setting under dreary skies and strewn with dirty streets. One refugee in particular, Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) has barely made it out alive and finds herself working as a servant for socialite Imogen (Tamzin Merchant), who is quite racist against the fae along with her husband Ezra (Andrew Gower). They get especially annoyed when a new neighbor arrives, an aristocrat of the faun species named Agreus (David Gyasi). Into town also lands an inspector, Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), called “Philo,” who is investigating a series of murders targeting faes. Could it be a serial killer or a mad racist human? As Philo digs into the case he meets Vignette and must confront his own dark past in the recent wars. There is also much political intrigue that threatens to separate Fae and human irrevocably.
“Carnival Row” has so many characters, subplots and ideas crammed into its first 8-episode season that it’s a miracle some of it makes coherent sense. The show is the creation of René Echevarria, a veteran of shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Teen Wolf,” and writer Travis Beacham, who apparently wrote the premise as a spec script years ago. He lucked out with the arrival of the peak TV era and the fact that studios are scrambling to fill the void left by “Game of Thrones.” And that is precisely what Amazon is obviously aiming for here, an original fantasy production with its own, intricate world and mythology. On the level of inventing a reality it’s quite successful, bringing to mind writers like China Mievelle who combine this kind of fairy tale, steampunk style with political commentary. At its heart “Carnival Row” addresses current obsessions with immigration and racism. The Fae are the quintessential refugees escaping to a place dominated by the human ruling class who use them as servants, prostitutes and still deny them socio-economic equality. Vignette comes into contact with an underground resistance movement seeking to make life hard for Burgues’s Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris of “Chernobyl”). The Chancellor is having his own domestic issues involving wife Piety (Indira Varma, a “Game of Thrones” regular) and their rebellious son Jonah (Arty Froushan), who enjoys the pleasures of a local brothel’s Fae selections. When Jonah is kidnapped by mysterious forces Absalom is of course forced to suspect Fae rebels are behind it.
Where does Philo fit into all of this? He’s like the detective in “Babylon Berlin,” first appearing as a typical lawman and then revealing multiple layers to his story. He was once a soldier and Vignette recognizes him instantly at Burgue, threatening to kill him for a secret in his past best not to spoil. Now he has to find a savage entity that is not only killing Faes but harvesting their organs. Bloom has the look for a noir inspector, solemn with a clenched jaw. He sleeps with his landlady but could never love her, typical movie detective activities. Many of the other characters are also pulp creations, like Tourmaline (Karla Crome), a sex worker with colorful hair who is also a poet and is a close friend of Vignette’s.
These personas are put into a beautifully-crafted invention of a world. Burgue and Carnival Row are a cloudy setting with European buildings and people dressed in Victorian wear, but men have faun horns, women hide their fae wings and soothsayers read body parts for signs. One of the most enchanting imaginings is a miniature theater directed by Runyan Millworthy (Simon McBurney), with performers are actually small creatures. The cinematography is always rich and detailed and worthy of comparisons to shows of high production standards like “Game of Thrones.”
Where “Carnival Row” begins to falter is in keeping its massive storyline balanced. At times it’s hard to follow just what’s going on. By the last episode one twist after another is thrown our way to the point where there’s narrative traffic jam. Someone discovers they are actually related to a fae they’ve been sleeping with, Philo finds out the killer he’s seeking is actually much bigger and dangerous than he imagined, even the Chancellor takes a knife to the gut. Before all this Imogen’s racist attitudes are seriously tested when she starts having sex with Agreus, who is a charming alternative to her creepy of a husband. It is also in the final chapters where the show reaches a political crescendo that is an obvious reference to current political debates. Let’s just say laws are passed against the fae and soon the authorities are emptying out entire neighborhoods. But let’s stop there, you have to watch the series to fully take in what it’s trying to convey. It is clear however, that “Carnival Row” is so self-assured of its lasting power that the season finale is a total cliffhanger.
“Carnival Row” may appeal to a specific fan base based purely on its absorbing aesthetic. It’s a fantastic production to admire for its detail and sense of imaginative place. Battlefields look like World War I photos and Victorian culture is mingled with magical fantasy elements. But its overall spirit is of the gothic, preferring somberness and shadows. The story however, requires a little more light.
“Carnival Row” season one begins streaming Aug. 30 on Amazon.