WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
In a world much like Victorian England but with a large immigrant population of mythological creatures, Rycroft Philostrate, a grizzled police detective, investigates a string of grizzly murders happening on "Carnival Row" – the area of the city populated by the non-human immigrant community. Working against a system that views this immigrant population as, at best, a nuisance, Philo starts to uncover deadly secrets that threaten to entirely undermine the uneasy peace between humans and the community of creatures they call the "critch". Meanwhile, unknown to Philo, the politicians of the city are engaged in a game of their own that may or may not be tied into the string of murders themselves. To top it all off, Vignette Stonemoss, Philo’s long-lost fairy love makes an unexpected and not entirely unwelcome return into his life...
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
If the Witcher is Netflix's attempt to have a Game of Thrones for their streaming platform, Carnival Row is clearly Amazon's attempt to do the same for its own streaming platform, Amazon Prime. And, actually, the latter comes much closer to capturing the spirit of Game of Thrones than the former as the Witcher wisely left behind such ambitions for something much more episodic, much more traditional and much more gleefully silly. Does it come remotely close to capturing the brilliance of GoT at its peak, though? Well, no, it really doesn't, but that doesn't mean it should be written off either.
Admittedly, Carnival Row does itself no favours by being made up of almost exactly the same ingredients as HBO's mega-hit. Sex, nudity, violence and swearing are all present and accounted for, and the show happily provides enough political intrigue, strange romance, possible incest and occasionally dodgy English accents to keep you in that familiar mindset. And, like GoT but also like almost all "epic fantasy", it's all set in what is supposed to be a fantasy world but is really just an England of the past with a bit of magic thrown in for good measure.
And, there's no getting around it, compared to the complexity, wit, stellar performances and game-changing storytelling of Game of Thrones – or at least its first season, which is the most direct comparison here, of course – Carnival Row just doesn't have what it takes to really play in the big leagues. And, frankly, it doesn't have anywhere near the level of trashy fun that the Witcher provides in spades to even really hold up against its most obvious competitor.
And yet, despite its modest achievements and many glaring flaws, it still manages to be surprisingly compelling even if it's hard to explain exactly why that is.
As a major first strike against it, it's surprising how po-faced and earnest Carnival Row is when it is so blatantly daft and so clearly pulpy. These aren't bad things in and of themselves, as any number of silly but thoroughly enjoyable genre films and TV shows have demonstrated time and again, but its almost total lack of a sense of humour about itself makes for something that is just a bit embarrassing and just nowhere near as much fun as it should be.
And then there's the almost fatal problem of its lead. Not only is Orlando Bloom saddled with a very unconvincing... let's say "Cockney" or maybe "Geezer" accent, he just isn't much of a screen presence. It's not even a question of whether he can act but, well, there's a reason why despite starring in one of the highest-grossing franchises ever, he hasn't made much of an impression in anything else. Hell, he didn't even make much of an impression in those films either. He's likeable enough, but he's just far too bland to ever convince in a role that is basically a Victorian cockney take on Philip Marlowe.
On the other hand, the rest of the cast are good to great – even if there are no obvious standouts like a Peter Dinklage or a Lena Headey. In the case of the show's leading lady, though, Cara Delavigne may acquit herself a lot better than her male counterpart, but she just isn't really given the material to truly shine. Her character is interesting in theory, but she is often relegated to being the supporting character in Philo's story rather than the show's true co-lead. Still, even with a questionable Scottish-type accent, she has no trouble at all convincing as a rebellious, headstrong pixie, and I hope that she gets a more focused arc in the second season.
And, yes, for all of my misgivings, I will definitely be there for the second season. And for a fairly simple reason. The main attraction of the show and the thing that had me breezing through it in a relatively short time, is the world-building by series creators, Travis Beacham and René Echevarria.
Like the best fantasy worlds, the world of Carnival Row feels lived in and wholly believable. We are thrown into the world almost mid-story, and the cast of characters, the political context of the show and, most crucially, the city itself are revealed in a way that is remarkably organic for a show that does stumble a bit in some other respects. And, for all of its many different aspects and characters, there is a sharp focus to the show that centres around the obvious but effective extended metaphor of the clash between the native humans and the strange, alien immigrants.
The show actually gets better as it goes along as we find out more about this world and more about the seemingly polite but really cut-throat politics underlying this world and the supporting cast – who are largely much more engaging than our two heroes – start to get fleshed out.
You don't need to wait for an episode, though, to appreciate the stellar production values of the show. While the city comes across like an almost mythological take on Victorian London, there is an earthiness and flea-market-like vibrancy to Carnival Row itself that doesn't just turn the show's setting into a central character but gives it a story all of its own. And that on top of the fact that it simply looks great with immersively detailed sets, a luscious but shadowy colour palette and an emphasis on exceptional prosthetic work over CGI.
Best of all, if you take the first season as elaborately setting the table for what's to come (and the season certainly ends on a pretty decent cliffhanger), then it becomes all that much easier to take it for what it is and to very much look forward to what's to come.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: