Amazon Prime’s “Carnival Row” is a fantasy series unlike any other on the market.
Commissioned, no doubt, in the wake of the insane popularity of “Game of Thrones,” Amazon’s new show is a blend of Victorian era aesthetics, various mythologies, Lovecraft elements and a heavy dose of racial allusion. No one aspect of it is particularly unique on its own, but the show blends it all together for something that’s just different enough to set itself apart from the derivative pile of fantasy shows aiming to be the next big thing.
“Carnival Row” immediately throws the viewer right into the middle of this unique universe as unknown soldiers push through a dark and misty land, hunting and capturing faeries — human-like creatures with wings that allow them to fly. The hunt would be difficult, if not for the massive iron net draped over the forest, preventing any from escaping by air. The quick-paced hunt is brutal, bloody and immediately sets the tone for the entire series. It also serves as an introduction to one of the show’s two main leads, Cara Delevingne’s Vignette, a faerie who comes to the titular Carnival Row — a ghetto where fae folk live in oppression.
The fae folk lived peacefully for thousands of years on a secluded continent before it was discovered by humans. War erupted between the Burgue and The Pact over the riches of the island, forcing the fae folk to flee as refugees to plays like Carnival Row.
The row is policed by a corrupt force of mostly racist humans who despise the fae folk who live there. Among them is Orlando Bloom’s Rycroft, a former soldier and former lover of Vignette who has a good relationship with the fae. His character stands at the center of the shows’ overall narrative, as he hunts for a mysterious Lovecraftian creature killing both fae folk and humans alike.
There are numerous storylines intertwined throughout the first season, including one of political intrigue in the upper echelons of the Republic of the Burgue, one of four continents in the universe. Another follows a wealthy brother and sister who find themselves neighbors to Agreus Astrayon, a rich Puck, a mythological faun, who has climbed the economic ladder, but finds himself ostracized by humans. All of it ties together to give a surprisingly broad scope for a first season.
“Carnival Row” admittedly has pacing issues with the first couple of episodes. After the breakneck opening, it slows to a crawl while all of the characters are introduced and placed in their respective positions before the storyline can progress. The atmosphere dominates the early episodes, as they do a lot of heavy lifting to establish the rules and setting. Once the mystery at the center of the show begins to reveal itself, the pacing quickly picks up.
The relationship between Vignette and Rycroft is probably the weakest aspect of the show. Neither share very good chemistry and the writing does a disservice to each character. It’s framed as a “Romeo and Juliette” style forbidden love between a faerie and a human — which creates hybrids that are hated by both — but ends up serving more as an irritating conflict, complete with bickering that adds nothing to the show and detracts from the more interesting elements.
As with many fantasy works of this type, the fae folk are used as pretty shallow allegories for racial tensions. Almost all humans look down on the fae, despite pilfering various aspects of their cultures to accommodate as their own. Many work in indentured servitude as payment for passage to the human world. Others are treated no better than slaves. It’s even more heavy-handed that Agreus is played by an African-American in order to hammer home the racial parallels as he’s constantly mistreated by upper class humans.
The show does take the parallels a step further, taking time to visualize the poor conditions in which the fae refugees live, not unlike refugees fleeing the fighting in the Middle East. Various characters constantly emphasize how much the fighting has destroyed the homeland and how they’ve been forced out to live in downtrodden camps.
“Carnival Row” has its issues, and there are certainly plenty of them, but it still provides a breath of fresh air as a completely new fantasy series in a pool of half-hearted book adaptations inspired by “The Lord of the Rings.” It’s good to see a fantasy show set in a time and place not inspired by Middle Ages England. It’s only eight episodes, so the show is a quick weekend binge. A second season has been commissioned and was in the process of filming, but no premier date has been announced.
“Carnival Row” is rated TV-MA and is available exclusively on Amazon Prime streaming.