Amazon's ambitious new fantasy series Carnival Row features a murder mystery, a troubled romance, and a fantasy world rich with neo-noir and steampunk aesthetics - but it's also attracted a significant number of negative reviews. Why has a TV show that seemed to have so much promise left so many critics dissatisfied?
Carnival Row stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as estranged lovers Rycroft Philostrate and Vignette Stonemoss. Philo was a soldier who fought in a war in Vignette's homeland of Tirnanoc, until the human forces of The Burgue decided to pull out of the war and leave the fae defenceless against their invaders. Vignette and Philo met in the war and fell in love, but got separated in a battle that left Vignette believing Philo was dead. They're reunited when Vignette joins her fellow fae refugees in The Burgue and discovers that Philo is alive, well, and serving as an inspector with the city's constabulary.
Those who have already fallen in love with the world of Carnival Row have no need to fear that the negative reviews will end it after one season. Amazon announced Carnival Row season 2 alongside the release of the first season, so we can expect to see Vignette and Philo return no matter what. Currently the show has a "Rotten" score of 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, and here are some of the reasons why reviewers were less than impressed - in their own words:
"Reanimates bits and pieces from different branches of the fantasy genre into a glum and lumbering beast that only occasionally sparks into life... The energy left over from this exercise in world assembly doesn't appear to have gone into creating vivid characters or an involving mystery or romance."
"Bloom, pitching his voice low as a human detective, does little at all while trying to solve various uncompelling mysteries. However much narrative energy spent ginning up an alternate universe in which divine creatures exist seems wasted as Bloom plods through cases that are either uninspired or inspired by every Jack the Ripper copycat in history."
"Not an episode goes by that doesn’t make one wonder what Carnival Row could have been had it not bitten off far more than it can chew. There’s much to like here—mostly the kaleidoscopic genre-mixing—but not enough to overcome the show’s confused handling of the socio-political allegory at its core. Would that this beast were more thoughtfully stitched together."
"World building is hard enough, but as circus acts go, Carnival Row is like a juggler on a unicycle. It's kind of interesting to watch, but nobody really needs it. Nor does the prejudice directed at the mythological races really come alive, as allegorical as it might feel."
"Carnival Row leans heavily on ornamentation to distract from shallow tropes and cliché plots. But whimsical sets do not make a show inherently interesting. Neither do fancy-sounding names like 'Vignette,' which only serve to gussy up the one-dimensional characters underneath."
Carnival Row uses the influx of fae into The Burgue as a transparent allegory for real-life issues such as immigration and racism, but a lot of critics said that this aspect of the show falls flat - either because it's too clumsily inserted, or because its an element that feels like it's been done too many times before. The show can also be somewhat alienating to those who aren't already enthusiastic fantasy fans, with its rapid-fire world-building and cast of characters with names like "Tourmaline Larou" and "Agreus Astrayon." However, Carnival Row is already finding an enthusiastic fanbase among viewers, and some reviews are considerably warmer towards the new series:
"It takes a few episodes for the series to introduce and spin out this cobbled mythology — and that will undoubtedly lose some people — but ultimately it works when it gets going. Carnival Row has a strong cast and if you're in the open-minded mood to see how humans, fairies and inter-species creations fight to get along in a dark world of magical realism and Jack the Ripper-era British police tactics — replete with political machinations, an otherworldly serial killing spree and disparate tribes of combatants — then this is precisely your stew."
"If a group of hardcore genre fans got together and wrote a TV show, and then somebody’s rich Uncle Jeff (Bezos) Venmo’d them several million dollars to produce it, the result might be something like Carnival Row... At times, the mythology can feel needlessly complex, but there is something truly endearing about Carnival’s earnest, irony-free storytelling."
"As a piece of fantasy fiction, this is rich and engaging... The visual touches are stunning, an intoxicating blend of Victorian grime and gilded age polish, where mansions and slums clash, sliced in two by monorails of clanking steam trains overhead."
Ultimately, it seems like Carnival Row is a show where you'll have to watch for yourself to find out if its your cup of tea. And it's worth at least giving it a chance - after all, there aren't a lot of steampunk fantasy shows that feature Jack the Ripper-esque murder mysteries and puppet shows starring tiny kobolds dressed up in costumes on TV right now.