Carnival Row is fantasy that fucks.
I start with this fact because Carnival Row, the latest high-concept streaming series from Amazon Prime Video, really wants you to know: This is dark fantasy. Dirty fantasy. Luridly sexual fantasy.
In Carnival Row, humans get naked. Faeries get naked. Wings are employed creatively in sexual acts. Characters say “Fuck!” frequently, as if modern profanity is the tether binding the audience’s credulity to all this imagination.
I mean, when a fae starts cursing, you know things are serious — even if they aren’t real.
‘Carnival Row’ review
One of the problems with Carnival Row, though, is that it wants to be real. Beneath its gruff exterior of sex and gore (prepare to see many entrails if you press play), the show’s intentions are almost painfully earnest. Carnival Row tries so hard to reflect modern divisions and turmoil through a dark mirror of the imaginary that all we end up seeing is a smudged and unmoving caricature.
A kinky caricature at that, dressed in Victorian costume, taking place in a grimy, Gothic Dungeons and Dragons game.
The quest in this particular round of play is simple: Solve a mysterious series of murders plaguing the fae community in the slum community of Carnival Row. Your main players in this quest are the human Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom) and his former lover, the faerie refugee Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne).
Philo’s attributes include unflagging good-heartedness and a tendency to call out lines like, “This can’t have happened more than a couple of hours ago!” with alarming earnestness. Vignette has a bit more nuance to her presentation as a bisexual library guardian, turned faerie smuggler, turned refugee, but she will roll up admirably in a fight (and any time the audience needs life in The Burgue explained).
Carnival Row’s premise is solid enough: Tirnanoc, country of the magical fae, has been devastated by a war between the completely evil, non-magical powers of the Pact, and the only-slightly-less-evil territory called The Burgue. The Pact has overrun Tirnanoc, sending floods of winged faeries, horned fauns, hoofed centaurs, and other “critch” to live as refugees in the Burgue.
There, they face segregation, prejudice, poor employment, and the suspicions endured by unwanted immigrant communities throughout human history.
Fair (or faer?) enough. Employing fantasy tropes as metaphors for real-world injustice is a delicate business, but one that can yield powerful dividends when handled well.
Carnival Row… struggles with this.
One reason for the difficulty is that the series is deliriously unfocused. Here is an incomplete list of real-life issues that Carnival Row attempts to tackle through its veil of horns and wings:
Racism. Refugees. Neighborhood desegregation. Interracial romance and magical miscegenation. Religious fanaticism. Occupied native lands. Exoticisation of sacred artifacts. Sex work. And, oh yeah, sexism! That too.
Admirable as this diverse and dizzying smorgasbord of subjects is, Carnival Row can’t pick a lane to save its life. Putting aside the fact that the show’s attempt at metaphor is about as subtle as a battering ram (for example, it is a crime for fae to, and I quote, “pass” as human in the Burgue), Carnival Row‘s attentions are so splayed and varied that the potency of the allegory is mostly diluted.
Not entirely — Karla Crome stands out as the well-realized Tourmaline, a refreshingly unimpressed faerie who makes ends meet as a sex worker on the Row. Another plot line, shared between the aristocratic Imogen Spurnrose (Tamsin Merchant) and her wealthy new faun neighbor Agreus (David Gyasi), isn’t quite as reliably well-carried; still, the two have enough Pride & Prejudice energy about them to pull off their mutual metaphor.
The second flaw in Carnival Row‘s construction is less socially significant but more deeply embedded in the art: The story never quite seems to trust, or frankly even believe, in its own magic.
The objects, archetypes, and ideas that Carnival Row employs to tell its story have been divested of any fairytale luster. The series is devoid of awe and arcana, replacing the marvelous with meat, true mystery with a gory whodunnit.
As it turns out, there is a difference between the fantastical and the magical. Carnival Row is genuinely enjoyable for the gusto with which it embraces fantasy — look for none of Game of Thrones’ gradual adjustment to the winged and weird here. Faeries, witches, werewolves, addictive elixirs, and hybrid killers are all printed into the show’s genetic code. Carnival Row is a fantasy show, and it doesn’t apologize for that fact.
But when it comes to the magic represented by all these sprites and spirits, Carnival Row is nearly barren. Magic requires not only imagination (the series certainly has imagination) but faith in the integrity of its tropes beyond cogs in a metaphor.
There is a reason why fairy tales endure, why spells and secret places continue to capture our imagination. Even as the story deepens into darker powers, Carnival Row seems disinterested in this natural energy.
Instead, the show restricts its exploration to what is presented — rather than what is represented — by its potentially magical legacy. Just as in our world, anything can be killed on Carnival Row. A fawn can perform an autopsy, and faerie wings make for good transportation and interesting sex.
This is all probably in the service of Carnival Row‘s apparent quest for human truths, as it tells a tale of othering in a realm full of others. The show condemns its imaginary prejudices in powerful terms, but ultimately it rolls rather low on impact.
That’s not to say that the series is without its entertainment. But to pull a phrase from my D&D manual, absent magical spark and loaded with earnest intent, it proves decidedly lacking in evocation.
Carnival Row comes to Amazon Prime Video on August 30.