Carnival Row Review: Self-Indulgent Social Messaging In a Dark, Depressing Fantasy Realm

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Early talk about Carnival Row seemed determined to compare it to HBO powerhouse Game of Thrones.

The idea was that fans of the fantasy genre hoping to find their next obsession need look no further than Carnival Row to get their fix.

Carnival Row is no Game of Thrones. It's not even close.

Carnival Row Love Story

Created by René Echevarria and Travis Beacham, Carnival Row follows mythical creatures who have fled their war-torn homeland and gathered in a city called The Burgue. Tensions are simmering between citizens of The Burgue and the growing immigrant population.

If it sounds a lot like a heavy-handed political message crafted into a fantasy television series, that's because it is.

Featuring a star-studded cast, Carnival Row nonetheless plods laboriously along while pounding viewers in the head with a mallet to get their point across.

Essentially, white old men bad, everyone else good.

Jared Harris on Carnival Row

I wish I could say that's an exaggeration, but it's pretty close. In the fantasy realm of Carnival Row, Anthropus Superior aka Homo Sapiens represent evil white men in The Burgue.

The council of The Burgue is comprised almost entirely of men, with the opposition leader being a woman.

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It's not surprising that the core group of main characters is almost entirely white while the other species are far more colorful.

Faunus Vulgar are your Fanns or Puyocs. Fata Nimfidias are your Faes, Faerishy, Faerishman, and Faeries.

Vignette Stonemoss on Carnival Row

There are also Kentaurus Saggistus or Centaurs or Otherkins.

If you're sensing a pattern here, words for each species are plentiful, and that's before we get to the slang which includes critch, groundling, legger, puck, trotter, pix, think, locust, hoss, and nag.

If it isn't exhausting enough trying to understand the species and their formal and slang terms, the accents seem to follow no pattern.

Luckily, the lower level people are somewhat easy to distinguish because they look different. Yes, even in a fantasy world filled with creatures of all kinds, it's looks that divide.

Fighting in the War

There are a few stories at play during Carnival Row Season 1 (Season 2 is already ordered), but none of them are very compelling.

At the center of the drama is the investigation into a string of unsolved murders eating away at whatever uneasy peace still exists. Someone is attacking creatures. You can guess the culprit's description. Oh, well, here. "A racist with a hammer is beatin' us where he finds us and we don't see too many you lot out here givin' a shit."

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There is also a love story between a white guy and a white fae, and there is also political turmoil brewing within the ruling class and their opposition.

Orlando Bloom leads as Rycroft Philostrate (Philo for short), the detective investigating the string of atrocities.

Orlando Bloom as Rycroft Philostrate on Carnival Row

Cara Delevingne is Vignette Stonemoss, one of the fae forced to flee her home.

Philo and Vignette have a history that drives the show's love story, and it's easily the most palatable storyline. While they don't sizzle when on screen, at least they have a credible backstory to their credit.

Jared Harris and Indira Varma are Absalom and Piety Breakspear. His community leadership is under attack, and she is hiding a dark secret.

Their son, Jonah (Arty Froushan) has political aspirations of his own, and he becomes entangled with Sophie Longerbane (Caroline Ford) with similar ambitions.

Tamzin Merchant on Carnival Row

Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower star as the highbrow brother and sister duo, Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose, who get an unlikely neighbor in their wealthy enclave, a puck names Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi).

Much has been said about the production values of this Victorian steampunk world, but the dour and dank Burgue is dull in comparison to where the creatures fled. That was lush and green, seemingly filled with hope.

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When in the Burgue, I was never able to imagine the series as anything other than a giant set built on a soundstage.

It's a suffocating feeling, which could be a conscientious choice to make viewers feel as much oppressive despair as those trying to survive in the crowded city. Either way, it's unpleasant to watch.

Hanging with the Hookers

Is all of this perhaps a more dire view of the series than you will have while watching? It depends on what you seek in a drama, let alone one in the fantasy genre.

There are no humorous moments, and the show never does anything but take itself seriously, something that can be difficult with faeries, pucks, and otherkin.

For instance, it's difficult to figure out the nature of the fae's wings. How do they get them through traditional clothing, and more importantly, why do they force their bodies into the clothing style of homo sapiens?

Should wings modeled after a dragonfly's be as tear-resistant as the wings on faeries?

David Gyasi as Agreus Astrayon

Why do they look so darn silly while flying? And why don't the pucks and otherkins walk more naturally? It seems as if there wasn't enough thought about practicality when the design of the creatures was floated up the chain toward production.

There is no nuance to speak of with cliche-ridden characters lacking natural development. The exposition-heavy plot leaves little wiggle room. You are expected to feel exactly what they want you to feel without offering any opportunity for discussion.

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The council of leaders meets in a rotunda with opposing political parties shouting their messages while those not currently speaking scream their assent or dissent. They're likely to be entirely direct, spelling out the situation rather than allowing us to witness the layers of this world.

Thanks to the critch migrants, our citizens can no longer walk safely in their boroughs! There are crazy new gods people worship! Do you see us, being so socially relevant?! OK, that last part is not paraphrased dialogue, but it might as well be.

Cara Delevingne on Carnival Row

The excitement to capture the lightning in a bottle that was Game of Thrones means we'll be subjected to more shows like this, and not less.

Viewers deserve a lot more than this drivel, but the cast does, as well. They all attempt to lean into their characters as if their performances could do anything to change the outcome.

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Diverse casts working with social messaging can be done well. See the little talked about CW series Two Sentence Horror Stories. In a mere 20 minutes, it offers compelling characters whose actions reveal a dramatic and also terrifying twist often reflecting society's most challenging discourse.

Those are the storytellers worth the investment. Carnival Row, by contrast, is self-indulgent, offering nothing to bridge the divide that rocks society in 2019.

Carnival Row drops on Amazon Friday, August 30.


Editor Rating: 2.0 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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