‘Carnival Row’ Review: Fantastic Worldbuilding That Deserves a Better Story

There's an interesting world here that's just begging to be explored, but the first season only shows us glimpses of it.
Carnival Row

Amazon’s Carnival Row was over a decade in the making. Originally a film titled A Killing On Carnival Row, the Travis Beacham-penned script made the 2005 Hollywood Black List, with Guillermo del Toro even on board to helm the feature-length at one point. Like most planned del Toro projects, however, it seemed destined to remain in development hell forever. That said, in a post-Game of Thrones climate, the fantasy genre is booming again. And realizing that there was an appetite for a similar kind of violent, gritty genre show, Amazon Studios acquired the property in 2017 and turned it into a likeminded series about creatures, sex, violence, and political upheaval.

Those are where the Game of Thrones comparisons end, though. If Carnival Row is reminiscent of anything, it’s the Victorian fantasy of Penny Dreadful and countless supernatural detective mysteries riffing on Sherlock Holmes that can be found in steampunk literature. It’s just more self-serious than most of them.

The show stars Orlando Bloom as Rycroft Philostrate, a detective out to hunt down a serial killer in a neo-Victorian city filled with mythical creatures (known as the Fae). During his investigation, he also rekindles his relationship with a refugee faerie, Vignette (Cara Delevingne), who has ended up in the land of the humans, after a war pillaged her homeland. In this world, the magical beings are subjected to prejudice and xenophobia. The humans are responsible for the plight of their world, but that doesn’t mean they’ve welcomed the Fae with open arms. As such, the mythical population has been forced into servitude, working as prostitutes and in other professions that prevent them from having freedom and equal rights.

Politicians are divided over what to do with the Fae. On one side of the fence, the more tolerant figures acknowledge that their savagery caused the crisis. On the other side — the one that represents general society — the opposition echoes similar views to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in regards to migrants. But even the most sympathetic people to the Fae’s cause still refer to them with racial slurs, which says a lot about how backwards this society is.

There’s a purpose behind the gross attitudes towards non-humans, though. Carnival Row wants to make observations and statements about contemporary real-world social and political issues — nationalism, imperialism, racism, classism, etc — and it does so with middling effect. The show features almost every form of oppression there is, and while the commentary doesn’t have anything false to say about the state of our world per se, the series fails to incorporate these themes into a compelling narrative.

More than anything, the story is too dense and serious for its own good. Patience might serve viewers well in the long run as the story picks up steam toward the end of the eight-episode series. At the same time, making it through the series is a slog, which makes the satisfying moments towards the end feel like a case of too little, too late. The cusp of the series revolves around our two protagonists’ journeys amid a dull crime storyline, but it’s bloated with some interconnected subplots — forbidden love, political scheming, etc — which vary in quality. The creators want to immerse us in this world, but the various branches make for an experience that’s convoluted and fails to bring anything new and interesting to the table.

Credit must be given to the creators for trying to establish a world with a rich mythology and fully-fleshed ideas, but the entertainment factor is severely lacking and the fantastical window dressing doesn’t amount to much without an engaging story to support it. Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street have a similar period aesthetic but provide viewers with more satisfying Victorian debauchery and compelling tales worthy of investing in from the off.

The most intriguing element of Carnival Row is the fantastical world that’s just begging to be explored in more detail, which I hope they do in Season 2. The world-building is a highlight, and the potential for excellent stories to be told within this universe makes me hopeful that the show can find its way still. If you make it to the end, you might be willing to give Carnival Row a second chance.

There are some fun moments to be found, however. The action — when it happens — is mostly solid, with one particular highlight appearing in the first episode, featuring a foot chase through cobbled streets and across rooftops that’s wonderfully staged and makes great use of its setting. There’s also some shocking violence on display that will satiate your desire for fictional bloodletting.

As to be expected, the cast is also fine and does the best with the material they have to work with. Our two leads are standouts, but Jared Harris as the leader of Parliament plays a quintessentially British politician with aplomb. David Gyasi is also impressive as a wealthy faun who finds himself at the center of Draconian class and race politics.

Here’s hoping that the best is yet to come. For all its faults, there’s enough interesting ideas on display in Carnival Row to warrant a second season. A deeper investigation into this world, coupled with more narrative focus and urgency could make this an intriguing slice of fantasy pulp with a worthwhile message at its heart. Right now, it’s a boring, occasionally fascinating mess.

Kieran Fisher: Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.