When a murderer descends upon Carnival Row, Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) is determined to solve the case. Of course, the case gets complicated — fast. As rising tensions between humans and the mystical creatures who’ve taken refuge in their city create political and social rifts the likes of which could lead to another war or worse, Philo and his estranged ex, Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), must also navigate their own relationship — and its implications.
Carnival Row lovingly embraces urban fantasy tropes in a steampunk setting that makes the series feel like a period piece, despite its fantastical nature and rampant anachronisms. Despite a well-trod premise, the series is very enjoyable — in fact, it’s already been renewed for a second season at Amazon, although the first season doesn’t debut until August 30. Clearly there is confidence in the material, and it isn’t entirely misplaced.
The series is based on executive producer Travis Beacham‘s 2005 story A Killing on Carnival Row, though the content feels like a direct commentary on current immigration rhetoric. In some ways, this commentary succeeds: the fae, faun and other creatures who are relegated to life on Carnival Row are refugees of a war between two groups of humans hellbent on destroying their lands for resources. Still, they are treated like vermin, sold into indentured servitude and otherwise hated by the very people who have forced them from their homes in the first place.
When the murders begin, the police are reluctant to care. At least, most of them. As mentioned above, Philo won’t rest until the killer is brought to justice — and when it becomes clear that there is a deeper conspiracy behind these violent and senseless deaths, he doubles down on the case. Meanwhile, his peers mock him behind his back and attend meetings where they discuss how to rid the city of “critches,” a slur they use to refer to non-humans. If you’ve read the news lately, especially in the US, this likely sounds like a familiar story.
Unfortunately, the more poignant elements of the series’ sociopolitical commentary are lost to the frankly tone deaf casting. Bloom and Delevingne have incredible chemistry and they lead this series with grace. It must be said that they play their parts well and their characters are interesting, if emotionally overwrought from time to time. But even as Delevingne’s Vignette serves to represent the fae who are victims of circumstance, revolving the plot around this pair makes Carnival Row feel very white-centric.
There are people of color who play both humans and mythological creatures in this series, including secondary lead David Gyasi. Yet still persists the age-old problem of fantasy series seeming to believe that it’s unrealistic to center people of color in stories that metaphorically pick apart their lived experiences. Any poignancy achieved in Carnival Row‘s commentary falls apart under scrutiny.
That said, Gyasi’s plot serves as an interesting counterpoint to the star-crossed drama of Philo and Vignette. Gyasi plays Argeus, a mysteriously wealthy faun who assimilates by moving into an upscale human neighborhood. His new neighbors, Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and her brother Ezra (Andrew Gower), find themselves desperate to change their fortune after a series of bad financial decisions leaves them between a rock and a hard place. Imogen sees Argeus as her golden ticket; Argeus, on the other hand, questions Imogen’s motives while also seeking means to his own ends. The struggle for power and status feels worlds away from the fae brothel where Vignette stays with her friend, the poet Tourmaline (Karla Crome), and even further from the gruesome murders that plague the city.
This dichotomy creates a delicate balance that helps Carnival Row keep up its pacing through its eight-episode first season. Through Argeus and the Spurnose siblings, the series not only examines the obvious connection between classism and racism, but also the myth that if one can pull himself up by his bootstraps, he will be accepted into the upper echelons of society without so much as a question from his fellow aristocrats.
Meanwhile, the series also follows Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), his wife Piety (Indira Virma), their son Jonah (Arty Froushan), and their rivals, the Longerbanes. As the city reaches its breaking point, the Breakspears struggle to maintain their place within the government and attempt to hold their family together. This plot, although not the main one of the series, pulls everything together: we see the lowest common denominator (the mythical creatures and the police who antagonize them), as well as the aristocrats and the government bodies attempting to keep peace between them all in a meaningful way.
— Carnival Row (@CarnivalRow) June 26, 2019
The writing in this season is mostly tight, though the plot fumbles to cover more than a few holes; that said, those holes are easy to ignore as things unfold and the implications of what’s happening become clearer. Although the series fails to radically alter the traditional approach of fantasy properties to topical sociopolitical nightmares, it still holds up as an overall enjoyable viewing experience. Ideally, some of its issues will be worked out in season two without sacrificing any of the good character work or interesting dynamics that have already been established.
Urban fantasy fans will most likely love this series. It would be too spoilery to reveal some of the best-employed tropes in this review, but rest assured: Beacham and co-producers Mark Guggenheim (Arrow) and Rene Echevarria (Teen Wolf, Castle) don’t miss a beat. Plus, there are some unique twists that keep viewers guessing all the way through the season finale. The series’ commentary can definitely improve — but it would be a lie to say the series isn’t good. It is. It truly is.
Carnival Row begins streaming Friday, August 30 on Amazon Prime Video.