Carnival Row, Amazon’s new foray into the supernatural, is a pastiche of elements from so many other series: at one moment, it tries to channel the Victorian gloom of Penny Dreadful, while in another, it fancies itself as an “adult” Once Upon a Time – aka, it has a penchant for fairy tits and an unusually graphic amount of bloodletting. Throw in a fully-realized world (full of real-world sociopolitical parallels) built from a wholly original concept (no, this is not an adaptation), and it might seem Carnival Row is poised to be the next great fantasy series; and yet, it is one of the most lifeless series I’ve seen in 2019, an abundantly familiar show drowned by leaden starring performances and a silly, superficial plot that more than overextends its stay during the first season’s eight-episode run.
Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of familiar concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.
Most reviews you’ll read this week about Carnival Row will most likely lean into the very thin parallels between it and Game of Thrones: they both have elaborate mythologies, fantastical settings, and a wide array of supporting characters. But that is where the similarities end: much of Carnival Row‘s world building, as impressive as it may be in concept, just feels like world building for the sake of doing it: the many, many info dumps about a world shared by humans, faes, minotaurs, humans with ram horns, etc, etc. It’s like a highly glorified, well-budgeted fantasy cosplay convention (one that once had Guillermo del Toro attached, no less), evocative of so much familiar fiction, yet unable to tether itself to anything that feels truly original, or even worth seeing to the conclusion.
This issue of weightlessness carries through every element of the series, including the lead performances from Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne, who play former lovers and soldiers-turned detective and immigrant (respectively) when brought to the “new” world of 7th century The Burgue (which looks a lot like 19th century London, including rumors of a man named Jack running around “ripping” people’s faces off).
Bloom, as one might expect, offers no nuance to the ridiculously-named role of Rycroft Philostrate, a hard-boiled detective with a pocket full of personal regrets. It’s a two-pronged issue: the writing never asks Bloom to step outside his comfort zone of “vaguely good-looking and slightly concerned,” and Bloom never tries to push the envelope, fading indistinctly into the web of forgettable minor characters – which run the gamut from bitchy rich girl trying not to go poor, to fae prostitutes, to corrupt politicians and their wives, and the games they play for power (the lead political characters are played by Chernobyl‘s Jared Harris and Game of Thrones‘ Indira Varma, which at least inject some personality into the few scenes they’re offered each episode).
Bloom’s weak performance ultimately brings down the core elements of the series: both the murder mystery and the romance suffer from his character’s unconvincing presence in the narrative. Delevingne’s at least better casted, the scrappy action heroine chops she showed in the (otherwise disappointing) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets proving a better foundation to build her character, the (equally) ludicrously named Vignette Stonemoss.
As Stonemoss, Delevingne is equal parts scrappy and raw, elements that come to life in the few moments when Carnival Row untethers Vignette from the collection of genre tropes it constructs its stories around. However, those moments are few and far in between, and most of Vignette’s big moments are built around her and Philo’s interactions, a chemistry-free romance that only furthers the underwhelming sense of facsimile running through the heart of the series.
That being said, Carnival Row isn’t completely and utterly void of redeeming qualities: it is a rather earnest attempt to build an intriguing, relevant world of fantasy, albeit one built on an convoluted foundation of overwrought cliches (and one of the more underwhelming central romances in recent memory). However, Carnival Row has no sense of pacing and tone, content to mash up half-baked ideas (for example, all the immigrant faes have Irish accents) and familiar tropes, all in favor of an underwhelming murder mystery and even more disappointing romance.
Knowing Marc Guggenheim was going to be the show runner for Carnival Row initially had me excited, even after watching the boring-as-nails pilot: with so many different, strange elements to pull from, it seemed a natural playground for the EP behind Legends of Tomorrow to bring that show’s trademark unhinged chaos to: and yet, Carnival Row feels a lot closer to his Green Lantern script than The CW’s signature, groundbreaking superhero series.
Carnival Row, for all its trappings, characters, and fantasy elements, is a surprisingly simple, straightforward fare: and in the end, that’s the most disappointing part of the eight-episode first season (it’s already been renewed for a second season, of course). There’s just no risks being taken, no commitment to being truly unique or meaningful – be it the writing, the performances, or the show’s lackluster sociopolitical commentary, everything on Carnival Row is just dry. And for a show that purports the depth of its own imagination so frequently with filler backstory, it makes for a rather neutered, lifeless watch.
The most fervent fans of this particular brand of fantasy might be entertained enough to make it through all eight hours – but for most, Carnival Row is instantly forgettable, a mush of concepts and ideas that never coalesce into anything truly resonant, or even mildly entertaining.