Amazon's big-budget fantasy has the potential to be the next big genre star
It's a good thing that production for Carnival Row started before the backlash for HBO's Game of Thrones final-season fumble occured. It may have ended up dissuading Legendary Pictures and Amazon Studios from investing so heavily in a big-budget, small-screen fantasy saga. But Carnival Row is an entirely different creature at heart, despite any surface similarities. For one thing, it's an original concept rather than an adaptation, a breath of fresh air in the current sci-fi & fantasy film and television climate. You could be forgiven, though, for assuming that the elevator pitch for the series – fairies and other creatures living as war refugees (topical!) in a human world that looks suspiciously like Dickensian London – was cribbed from a YA series you missed.
The main story focuses on former lovers Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne, Suicide Squad) and Rycroft "Philo" Philostrate (Orlando Bloom, The Lord of the Rings). She's a fae (fairy) freedom fighter who just escaped her homeland, Tirnanoc, which has been taken over by a mysterious foreign power called the Pact. Tirnanoc's human allies in the Burgue (don't call it London) have agreed to take in war refugees, though the public at large harbors predictably xenophobic, racist views on the "critch," a catch-all term for the fae, pucks (satyrs), centaurs and the like. Philo, a former soldier in the Burguish army during the war in Tirnanoc, faked his own death after an affair with Vignette, but now works as a police detective – seemingly the only one concerned about a series of racially motivated attacks on refugees living in the fairytale-creature ghetto of Carnival Row.
On the surface, the parallels between current events and the world of Carnival Row is not subtle, but that's tempered by a borderline insane amount of world-building, both in the physical and metaphorical senses. There are so many homelands, political parties, religious beliefs, economic details and the like thrown into the mix that the show never becomes an allegory, and never lets the story get bogged down with well-intentioned messaging. Meanwhile, the sets, costuming, makeup and effects all scream, "We have spared no expense." Steampunk fans, at the very least, have a new visual reference point to pore over.
There are a number of subplots and side characters, most of which come together at some point. This does a decent job of fleshing out the world while providing a number of different perspectives on the integration of human societies with those of the critch. The icy-hot relationship between the sheltered, snobby Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant, Salem) and her well-to-do puck neighbor, Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi), is a standout, blending notes of Jane Austen and My Fair Lady into a compulsively watchable domestic drama.
On the other hand, Jared Harris (Chernobyl) is underused as Chancellor Absalom Breakspear. His shady wife, Piety (Indira Varma, Game of Thrones), is far more fleshed out, even if her motivations for double dealing feel shoehorned in.
Ultimately, the personal plot threads weave themselves into a tapestry that will leave viewers wondering about what comes next. It's clear that Amazon is hoping that Carnival Row becomes the next big fantasy epic. This first season does a remarkably effective job at laying the groundwork for future seasons, and if the biggest company in the world can't throw money at a fairytale murder romance show, why did we even sign up for one-day shipping?
– This story is from the Aug. 28, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.