Carnival Row Review: Whole Lot of Everything Goin’ On

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BY September 3, 2019

Last weekend, Carnival Row dropped on Amazon Prime and I watched every single episode with my own eyeballs. So here’s my mildly spoiler-y Carnival Row review.

What Exactly is Carnival Row?

First, no, this is not the show about the Depression-era traveling circus. That was Carnivàle and sadly, it was canceled years ago. Instead, this show is from Pacific Rim scribe Travis Beacham, with assistance from The 4400 creator René Echevarria. Knowing that, as I wrote in July, it’d be easy to predict that this show would be sci-fi. But you’d be wrong. Carnival Row is a little out of this world, but at heart, it’s a murder mystery/love story. And despite its fantasy trappings, it’s very much a part of our world.

As such, it begins, as so many human stories do, with war. We learn from a brief prologue that humans have been waging war (for…reasons) in the homelands of magical folk. Unsurprisingly then, they in effect destroyed those countries. Now the Burgue, a London-alike, is teeming with fae refugees, which provokes resentment from human citizens. (Hmm, hard to imagine.) Humans treat the fae like second-class citizens, largely relegating them to service jobs and sex work.

In the midst of this, LOTR alum/confident paddleboarder Orlando Bloom stars as Rycroft Philostrate (uh-huh), a former soldier turned police detective in the city. Back when “Philo” was deployed to faerieland Tirnanoc, he met and fell in love with Vignette Stonemoss, Cara Delevingne’s fae character. It’s that classic story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy lets girl think he’s dead. Now girl is in the city, too, so Philo has to deal with that AND solve a string of murders.

What I Liked About Carnival Row

Image via Amazon

The first thing that strikes you when you watch the show is its world-building. Now, I realize this sounds like an Aretha Franklin-esque “great gowns, beautiful gowns,” but stay with me here. The world of Carnival Row is fully immersive. From the actual world–the interiors, the architecture–to the appearance of the characters, it all feels real and realized. The show’s production crew has obviously taken an extraordinary amount of care in every part of the Row‘s design.

Beyond that, I like the idea of the story. The series started first as a film, which would have been called A Killing on Carnival Row. The film would have focused more on a Jack the Ripper-type killer preying on the Burgue’s fae sex workers. This story is introduced and quickly dispatched in the beginning of the series, which I think is a good decision. This kind of story has been done to death and there’s nothing new to say there. Instead, the show opts for telling a more ambitious story, which is both a help and a hindrance.

It’s a help because it allows the show to introduce bigger ideas, like about prejudice and power, for example. So when Philo realizes another killer is operating in the Burgue, we quickly understand the victims’ through line. They’re all fae or fae-adjacent. That, of course, leads to some unpleasant thoughts–are these killings magical hate crimes? Or is there something else going on here?

What I Didn’t Like About Carnival Row

To that end, this wouldn’t be a proper Carnival Row review if I didn’t get into the negatives. So let’s do it. As I said, the show wants to talk about big ideas. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the depth to do so. So while the series flirts with topics like immigration and racism, they’re handled very superficially. Yes, it’s terrible how humans treat the folks they call “critch,” but they don’t treat each other much better. And neither idea is explored as it could be.

This in itself echoes another problem of the show, which is that Philo is a terrible detective. Beyond their connection to fae, the killings have another through line, which I picked up hours before Philo did. Considering what that connection is, it’s almost unconscionable that it takes him so long. It seems as if it’s written that way, though, because the plot needs it to be, not because it makes any sense.

Image via Amazon

So we follow Philo as he mopes around the city, a city–again–that is full of fantastical creatures we could be watching, instead. Even the less fantastical characters are more compelling, though. For instance, it’s a particular delight watching Tamzin Merchant’s character, a buttoned-up prig, become much looser as the series unfolds. And then there’s Jared Harris. After his appearances on The Terror and this year’s Chernobyl, he’s just flexing at this point, assuredly one of the best actors on television. Like Carrie Coon, another one of the best actors on television, he makes a scene better just by being in it.

Even Cara Delevingne outshines this material, though. In her admittedly scant past roles, I’ve found it difficult to ignore the Cara Delevingneness of it all and see her sink into a character. But here she does it, making her scenes with Bloom pop, as her natural charisma anchors her. Bloom isn’t bad in this role, by the way–he’s just grim, which reads as flat.

The Bottom Line About Amazon’s New Urban Fantasy Experiment

There are a lot of interesting stories in the Burgue and that’s the biggest problem. There are so many stories and so many characters that they’re not always as well-integrated as they could be. And it’s hard to keep track of them all. It also means that character decisions frequently don’t make sense for the characters. That’s because those decisions aren’t serving them–they’re serving the plot, and the machinations become more evident as the season lurches forward.

But do I recommend this show? Yeah, kinda. Despite its quite glaring flaws, there’s a distinct charm to the world of Carnival Row. While it took me some time to catch up–there are so many wild names to learn–I liked being there. And I really want a kobold. Or five.

So what did y’all think? Share your thoughts in the comments below or tell us on social media when you share this review.

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Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.

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