Carnival Row Review: Fantasy and noir collide to create an enjoyable watch
Amazon’s new original fantasy/noir series, Carnival Row, is a visual treat and contains great performances from Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne but is marred by storytelling issues and being totally unfocused at times.
The series takes viewers into a Victorian fantasy world where mythical creatures, commonly referred to as fae, are constantly under the scrutiny of human. With a group of colonizers, known as The Pact, making fae abandon their homelands, the only place for fae to go is The Burgue. The Burgue is a place where humans and fae collide and although fae can find refuge – it comes at a heavy cost. Most of the faes are stuck living on Carnival Row, a run-down and poverty-stricken area of The Burgue, and only being able to hold jobs or status that makes them inferior to the humans. Carnival Row follows the intense power struggle that’s occurring throughout the city and the murderous acts by a mysterious creature that will unveil secrets and deception hidden within the city’s inhabitants.
Now, personally, I’m usually not a big fan of fantasy, but I ended up really digging how Carnival Row is a different kind of fantasy. The show is definitely has more adult look and tone with bloody action and a sexual nature at times as well as some noir themes that give Carnival Row more of a mystery vibe. The set and creature designs are absolutely remarkable, and the practical effects utilized for some of fae really create a realistic world to get lost into as a viewer. The way class and status is signified through clothes is great and it makes every character have a hidden story that viewers could look into – perhaps, too many stories.
While the main plotline of the show follows a detective, Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), and a vengeful faerie, Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), as they attempt to find out who is killing fae throughout the city and deal with their tangled past, there’s a lot more going on. From the troubles in politics that Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his family face to the battle of class that occurs between the high-class socialites Ezra (Andrew Gower) and Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) Spurnrose and their new faun neighbor, Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi) – there’s a little too much Carnival Row tries to cover.
Frankly, the biggest problem with these divergent plotlines is that some of them never feel like subplots and end up being distracting. Honestly, for first few episodes I started to question what the was really about. The mystery that Philo is trying to solve and has some great vibes of Lovecraft, but it’s constantly undercut by other plotlines that just don’t hold the same weight and are seemingly made important, almost more important, than they should be. The way Philo and Vingette’s past is handled is completely misguided and makes the first half of the show a total drag. Up until the third episode, we are given brief mentions about Philo and Vingette’s tumultuous past, but with episode three, the series does a deep dive into it with it encapsulating the entire episode. The problem with this is that it completely breaks the momentum from the previous episode and just shoves in their past in one big exposition dump. If their past was smoothly mirrored with their present throughout the entire series, it could’ve helped viewers connect to the characters more and let them rise as the true main characters – like they should be.
However, even with my issues with the series’ story structure, there’s still a lot to enjoy about Carnival Row with the great performances and solid second half storylines. Bloom and Delevingne put in great performances and their chemistry makes their characters’ romance more interesting and easier to invest into. Philo’s secretive backstory actually leads to some interesting development for him that leads to some fun twists and it ends on a note that leaves viewers with heartwarming vibes. Vignette also has some interesting moments as she explores the ins and outs of Carnival Row. Although, the subplot of her working within a rebel group of faeries fades fast and doesn’t really go anywhere.
There’s also a great performance from Gyasi as he captures the conflicting internal struggle that Agreus has as a “puck” living amongst those that detest him. There’s an interesting relationship that develops with Imogen that will be interesting to see in future seasons. As for the politics that surround Carnival Row and the Breakspears, other than the connection to Philo’s past, this was definitely the weakest part of the show. The politics behind the scenes are never that engrossing for viewers and it eventually almost feels like a soap-opera at times. However, I did think that it ended in a great way that nicely sets up a second season.
If you’re a die-hard for fantasy, Carnival Row definitely needs to on your watchlist, however, if you’re not, it should probably be approached with caution. It’s definitely unlike other fantasy shows out there and there’s a lot to be interested in with its eventual second season, but because the first half can be so unfocused and the storytelling can be rough – it’s hard to say if most viewers would stick around to see more. Personally, I’m definitely a little mixed, but it’s still hard not to appreciate Carnival Row’s uniqueness and ambition.