There’s a big-budget fantasy that Carnival Row calls to mind in its first few episodes and it isn’t Game of Thrones, although one suspects that Amazon would like viewers to draw those parallels. No, it’s an altogether more unfortunate comparison that clings to Carnival Row. It’s hard not to think of Bright, Netflix’s critical misfire that was similarly set in a world where fairies and other mythical creatures live alongside humans. There’s a crucial difference, of course, in that this is set in a fantasy land with a Victoriana vibe, rather than Los Angeles, but they both made one mistake in their conception: they both decided to make their multi-species world an allegory for modern race relations.
The narrative follows gravelly-voiced inspector Rycroft Philostrate as he investigates grisly killings in the fae community and reconnects with his old flame, feisty faerie Vignette Stonemoss (really). Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne muster up iffy accents to carry to the two lead roles, surrounded by cast members such as Jared Harris, who is totally wasted, and Chloe Pirrie, who should probably have been the main character. All of the mythological creatures, including trolls, centaurs, faeries and goat-horned creatures known as “pucks” live in the grim neighbourhood of Carnival Row, while the humans live in far more elegant settings and brazenly spout this world’s equivalents of racist slurs. Oh and there’s a rich lady who doesn’t like the puck that moved in next door, but four episodes in and that still seems astonishingly irrelevant.
Fantasy as allegory is a tried and tested technique, but it’s also something that takes a lot more finesse and subtlety than Amazon’s blockbuster series can muster. Writer Travis Beacham is clearly an aficionado of sci-fi and fantasy; his previous films such as Clash of the Titans and Pacific Rim show an evident love of lore-heavy stories, where every narrative beat comes with a convoluted backstory. These were also, unfortunately, rife with clunky writing and thinly sketched characters – Pacific Rim had its merits, but no one praised it for its emotional depth.
Carnival Row suffers from similar shortcomings, as Beacham is clearly excited by developing the rich details of a world that must exist vividly in his mind, but the execution falls distressingly short. The show simply doesn’t have the nuance to comment on the refugee crisis, systemic racism or a history of imperialism. It’s not enough to have a ship crash on the shore and say “makes you think”. The problem with a one-to-one allegory of fairies as immigrants or mythological creatures as minorities should be evident in that summation. It leads to all sorts of difficult questions about the parallels to the real world that the writing can’t sustain. It’s a shame – there’s a chance that Carnival Row would have been a much sharper, faster moving series if it weren’t lumbered with so much portent and meaning. The corny screenplay and undercooked romance don’t help matters.
There’s a relentlessly grimy tone to events that is, to be frank, exhausting. In the wake of HBO‘s Thrones, every studio will be clamouring for the audience of dark, violent, sexy prestige drama. Carnival Row is the kind of half-baked product that typically follows in the wake of huge successes. It replicates the surface qualities of the success – in this case, a gritty tone and adult themes – without applying any of the deeper reasons behind its popularity. The result is something leaden, cynical and slow. (Of course, this being a modern prestige TV show, there are also many scenes set in brothels, because it’s impossible, it seems, for TV to move beyond its fascination with prostitution.)
There are redeeming qualities. For fantasy fans, it’s nice to see a show lean this hard into its magical elements, with a richly inhabited world and nice background details. If the setting had been allowed to breathe instead of being stifled with multiple stories and a clunky allegory, then it could have been a real treat. Most shows need some time to develop and Carnival Row has already been given a second season – maybe with its feet on the ground and its lore established, it could focus on telling a much tighter story. If they ruthlessly cut out some of the less interesting characters (the Jane Austen racists would be no great loss) and lightened up a little bit, Carnival Row could mature into something genuinely exciting and different. As it is, this is an inauspicious beginning that is unlikely to win over the multitudes of fans it’s hoping to.
Carnival Row: Season 1 is available on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.