Carnival Row is the exact type of show that is going to populate a post-Game of Thrones world for years to come. Co-creators Travis Beacham and René Echevarria have been trying to bring this thing to life for years—at one point it existed only as Beacham’s feature-film spec A Murder on Carnival Row, in an entirely different life Guillermo del Toro was attached to direct the series—but the fact it’s finally made its way to air now seems auspicious. Networks are racing to fill the void left by the biggest show of all time with something that follows a similar blueprint: politically-bent high-concept dramas with huge ensemble casts, lavish royal intrigue, and enough mythical beasties to let you know this is a fantasy balanced out with enough boning to let you know this is For Adults. A Tolkien that fucks, basically. Carnival Row is all of the above and then some, but can’t quite compile all those parts into a consistently enjoyable piece. As is, it’s a highly ambitious series sporting a pair of faery wings that can’t carry its own aspirations off the ground.
The series is set after the empires of mankind discovered the homelands of the mythical fae, destroying them in squabbles of greed and imperialism, as mankind tends to do. Now, the human and the mythical live uneasily side-by-side in communities like the Burgue, a steampunk mudhole where the human elites look down on the fairies and fauna that toil in the streets. Not exactly helping the tension is a series of grizzly, monstrous murders that rock the seedy slum known as Carnival Row. The slayings coincide with the separate arrivals of human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and exiled fairy Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevigne), star-crossed lovers with secrets that could finally break the bending peace in the Burgue for good.
There are a few deliciously entertaining stories begging to be let out of the sludge of Carnival Row. The rocky forbidden romance between Vignette and Rycroft—and the revelations it eventually unearths—offers all the pulpy delights of a trash-fantasy paperback you’d grab off an airport book rack. (This is a genuine compliment; two-hour flight speed-reads are one of my most respected forms of art.) In loftier storylines, Carnival Row uses the man-and-myth divide to say some refreshingly biting things on race and class divide—handled roughly 1000x times better than Netflix’s Bright—through an obscenely wealthy fauna named Agreus (David Gyasi) attempting to navigate an upper crust who can’t stand having a neighbor with hooves. And the central murder mystery is just a good old-fashioned Victorian whodunit, Jack the Ripper meets An American Werewolf in London.
But the best the Burgue has to offer is straight buried beneath tedious plotting and occasionally glacial pacing that attempts to populate a world with so many poorly-introduced characters and side-plots it’s hard to care for half of them. The political side of Carnival Row is dry as a bone, featuring many high-collared old men rabble-rabble-rabble’ing at each other across crowded courtrooms, with some early debate-heavy scenes giving off extreme Star Wars prequel vibes. At the center of all this is Jared Harris as Absalom Breakspear, Chancellor of the Burgue, whose brothel-frequenting son Jonah (Arty Froushan) and scheming wife Piety (Indira Varma) give Absalom ample reason to give great exasperated Jared Harris face. I mean, of course Harris is fantastic throughout because he’s always fantastic—that man could be reading a very specific list of my physical flaws and I’d be like “mm, Emmy-worthy”—but the Breakspear Family and their political rivals are saddled with scenes that are effective on a world-building, table-setting level but feel like the story wheels are stuck in the mud.
It’s not that the narrative web is hard to follow, it’s just that some strands are just far more interesting than others. For a story that hops from character to character to character to work, there can’t be any weak links in the chain. Carnival Row has several, including a pair of wealthy siblings named Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower) who are just aghast at Agreus’ arrival; Imogen’s arc eventually morphs into something quite moving, but Merchant and Gower play the roles at such a broad level of hoity-toity it becomes a parody of a show like Carnival Row.
The series isn’t a bust; there’s absolutely an audience for Carnival Row based solely on the gorgeous production design, costuming, and cast. (Although the VFX are occasionally far cheaper-looking than they should be on a show like this.) Plus, yeah, the show is horny as hell—not a fauna joke, but also not not a fauna joke—but I also found something oddly unsexy about how aggressively Carnival Row wants to be a “sexy show.” Either way, we’re already guaranteed a season 2. Which, hey, luv 2 see a talented crew of people stay employed, but part of the problem of these first episodes is that they feel like an eight-hour-plus pilot. Without spoilers, the murder mystery eventually wraps up with a whimper—Delevigne and Bloom are often sidelined along with that plot, to the point they sometimes feel like background characters in their own story—with rapid-fire revelations coming fast and convenient. The final moments of season 1 have a heavy feeling of, “finally, we can start telling this story.” If we’re actually going to find the next big fantasy phenomenon, we’re gonna need to get better at finding the right place to stick that initial “Once upon a time…”
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
All episodes of Carnival Row season 1 debut on Amazon on Friday, August 30th.