Let’s just start by prefacing this review with these words: Carnival Row is not the next Game of Thrones. It only had the misfortune of following the smash HBO hit so closely. Carnival Row was not, is not, and could never be the next Game of Thrones. That simply isn’t how the show is written. No, the next Game of Thrones will be His Dark Materials, but that doesn’t mean anyone should sleep on Carnival Row.
Is it a perfect show? No. In fact, it is far from a masterpiece. But the fact of the matter is, it is a wonderful world that celebrates Irish mythology and supports something that is lacking in today’s stories coming out of Hollywood: originality. Yes, creator and writer Travis Beacham does take many of his more fantastical creatures from stories of old, but these are stories and creatures we haven’t had the luxury of seeing for a long time, mostly because Hollywood is obsessed with presold titles and comic book tent poles and things that producers and studios know will sell.
If Carnival Row had remained a film script, the ensuing movie would have slipped quietly under the radar. Why? Because while the Amazon series is a twisty concoction of fairytales (or should I say faerietales?), myths, and legends with characters who have ridiculously awesome names, it lacks enough gumption to be something more. That is its fundamental flaw.
Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevigne play star-crossed lovers Philo and Vignette, but you know that already. The show gives them ample time to grow and change as the story unfolds but they don’t change enough, just our perception of them does. It’s enough to keep the plot chugging along, in fact, the entire plot hinges on Philo and not in the way anyone is probably thinking. It’s an interesting twist on tropes that feel familiar. In fact, one scene in episode three had me cheering because it was such a 180 from what we usually see in fairytales. Give a woman a library is the saying. I’ll leave it at that.
Despite Bloom and Delevigne’s star power and the insistence that these are the characters we should care about, I found myself more interested in Tamzin Merchant’s Imogen Spurnrose and David Gyasi’s Puck Agreus. What starts as contempt and disinterest on both their parts, turns into something worth watching. By the seventh episode, there is the realization that maybe these are the characters Beacham should’ve given top billing. Merchant and Gyasi’s chemistry is much more palpable than Delevigne’s and Bloom’s. Their story is just a tiny bit more compelling.
The most disappointing of the various plot threads actually comes from high up. Jared Harris and Indira Varma play the powerful Breakspear couple, a pair of humans at the center of the political world of the Burgue. Absalom and Piety are relegated to a rather inelegant and been-there-done-that story that disappointed me at every turn. That’s not to say Harris’ performance suffered as a result. Varma’s did. The audience will be able to see that Harris believed in this storyline with every fiber of his performance even when the plot surrounding the Breakspears does an about-face and turns on its head. However, I will say that despite Absalom being one of the tragic characters in this story, his development from beginning to end is the most uneven. This is a man who calls the creatures “critch” to their faces while harboring a secret that would threaten his precarious chancellory.
Piety is simply a shell of what she could have been and her character was a disservice to the wonderful Varma. Varma is better than Piety Breakspear. In fact, I’d almost go so far to say that Harris is better than Absalom as well. The audience was promised a story that was as much political as it was romantic and the political side of the story foundered. The politics of the Burgue should have been a driving force, especially at the highest order, but instead, we get the story we get instead. As I said, it is a been-there-done-that story and I wanted, no, I needed more.
In a show that takes tropes and turns them on their head, Carnival Row suffers as a whole because of the banality of its base narrative. There’s no denying that there’s careful craftsmanship of this world and as the story hurtles to its end (another season has already been commissioned by Amazon) Beacham is smart to leave us with enough hanging plot threads to return to. However, I’m not sure those dangling threads are enough for the audience. I do think the second season will suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump. Only because what we’re left with isn’t enough to keep people interested. It isn’t enough to keep me interested.
Carnival Row is a beautiful show with beautiful ideas and yes, the audience should give it a chance, if only for Gyasi and Merchant’s characters and the lore behind it all. The way the show is crafted and how it comes together is nothing I expected, not at all, and the surprises were refreshing only because I saw them coming but they didn’t end the way I thought they would. Despite that, it still isn’t brave enough to be anything more than escapism.
So, come for the brutal beauty and originality of this steampunk, neo-noir world but stay for Imogen and Agreus. They’re probably the only characters who won’t disappoint you.
Carnival Row airs August 30th on Amazon Prime.
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