Murder, sex, politics, and a growing supernatural threat few believe is real are set against the backdrop of an astonishingly realized fantasy landscape. While this describes Amazon’s newest potential blockbuster series, Carnival Row, those elements are also what’s driving the current arms race among premium cable and streaming competitors, as they push to find the next Game of Thrones. The house that Bezos built may technically be first out of the gate with a very polished product — though the real test of the former neighborhood bookseller’s ability to create another monocultural television event will come when Amazon’s incredibly pricey investment in The Lord of the Rings is packaged along with free one-day delivery on paper towels — a Victorian fantasy starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as star-crossed lovers in a cold, dark world that uses mythical creatures as shorthand for more present-day concerns regarding ongoing immigration and refugee crises.
Created by Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) and René Echervarria (Teen Wolf), and featuring episodes written by the likes of Arrow’s Marc Guggenheim and some guy named Guillermo del Toro (perhaps you’ve heard of him?), Carnival Row is equal parts intriguing example of what plenty of imagination (and a lot of money) can bring to streaming services and an illustration of how chasing an aspirational likeness of a monumental success can create something of a creative cul-de-sac.
The description is fitting; the massive, CGI-enhanced sets of Carnival Row plunge its characters and audience into a harsh Victorian world, one whose streets and sewers (because, of course the characters spend time running around down there) have more than their fair share of unfortunate dead ends. It’s also another metaphor for a show with an affinity for going heavy on the metaphors, as the vast majority of the magical creatures turned refugees find the Burgue to be just that — a dead end.
Though Carnival Row lays it on pretty thick with regard to the metaphorical nature of its characters and their situations, the show has a surfeit of ideas and isn’t afraid to put them front and center, though viewers' mileage may vary with regard to the efficacy of how said ideas are ultimately implemented. Besides, it could be argued that Beacham and Echervarria’s series isn’t really built for subtlety anyway, and instead places a premium on spectacle, letting everything else fall in line behind an endless parade of special effects (both practical and CGI) and increasingly convoluted political machinations and world building. The effect, then, is a visually impressive program, one that immediately makes its presence felt with sweeping camera movements through the crowed, crime-ridden streets of its namesake, all while trying, with varying degrees of success, to layer those very same visual elements with characters whose stories and fates are developed enough to care about.
The series begins with a display of its visual strengths, one that plays into the novelty of its existence, showcasing an assault on the homeland of the faeries (and other magical beings). It's part of a much larger and protracted war that not only puts the fantasy denizens in peril, but also creates the current refugee crisis. The opening offers an introduction to Delevingne’s Vingette Stonemoss, a tough-as-nails faerie who winds up in indentured servitude to the Spurnrose siblings, Ezra (Andrew Gower) and Imogen (Tazmin Merchant), humans in the Burgeons on the brink of financial collapse due to Ezra’s mishandling of their late father’s vast fortune.
The series wastes no time introducing Vignette into the hierarchical class structure of the fictional city known as the Burgue, where her kind and any other so-called “magical” beings are denied basic freedoms based on their status as “other.” In doing so, Carnival Row makes quick work of establishing its surprisingly large ensemble cast, one that includes Jared Harris as Absalom Breakspear, Chancellor of the Burgue, and Indira Varma as his cunning wife, Piety. It also finds time to introduce Agreus (David Gyasi), as a wealthy faun whose arrival in the affluent part of town causes quite a stir among the rich and sheltered, particularly Imogen Spurnrose.
Early on, many of those stories operate separate from what is ostensibly the show’s primary narrative: the on-again, off-again love story between Vignette and her paramour, Rycroft Philostrate, played by Orlando Bloom. Their story is a lengthy one that spans several years, and one that Carnival Row wisely devotes an entire episode to early on in its first season. With that backstory behind it, and its main characters more fully fleshed-out, the series is able to better juggle is various plot threads and intrigues, as they slowly begin to converge on a series of gruesome murders in the Row by a creature that’s neither human nor fantastical refugee.
Bloom and Delevingne have a believable enough chemistry together, though Rycroft and Vignette actually prove to be more interesting outside of their shaky relationship. That actually works in the series’ favor, as Carnival Row is more interested in playing around in the gigantic, coal dust-covered world than operate solely as a love story. That desire to explore and showcase its unique setting can be something of a mixed bag, however, as the series, more often than not, relies on graphic demonstrations of its TV-MA bona fides, spending time among the many iniquities and vices common to the Burgue. And that’s in addition to the extremely violent murders that have not only caught Rycroft’s attention, but will soon ensnare nearly every major character in one way or another.
It seems easy to say that Carnival Row will be a hit for Amazon Prime, as it dutifully checks several boxes on the genre TV series wishlist. It also doesn’t hurt that Bloom seems to be in his element here, working in the same vicinity as his most famous characters from The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, but with a distinctly more adult sensibility. That suits him, and, as it turns out, it suits Delevingne, too, as she’s miles away from the embarrassment of Suicide Squad or the similarly ambitious, but ultimately misguided, massive world building seen in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Since the series has already been renewed for a second season, it seems the time is right for audiences to become invested in this magical world, even if it’s a far darker and nastier place than they might have otherwise imagined.
Carnival Row season 1 streams exclusively on Amazon Prime Video beginning August 30.