Many fantasy or science fiction narratives use metaphor and allegory to associate relatable real-world events with an extraordinary premise or setting. When done properly, which generally means subtly, this can be a powerful storytelling tool. Amazon’s Carnival Row is perhaps a little too blatant with the message it’s trying to push.
All right, fine, maybe a lot too blatant.
The series takes place in a setting somewhere roughly between the Victorian era and World War I, in an alternate world where fairies, satyrs, and other mythological creatures are not just real, but are significant minority groups in a Britain analogue kingdom called The Burgue. Cara Delevinge plays Vignette, a fae warrior who smuggles refugees out of her own war-torn country of Tirnanoc into The Burgue until she can escape there herself. Upon arrival, she finds the promised sanctuary to be openly hostile to immigrants and refugees, as contentious political factions stir up racist sentiments against anyone not fully human. Like many of her people, she winds up living in a seedy ghetto called Carnival Row, and initially has to take a job as a lowly domestic servant, eventually abandoning that to take up a life of crime with others of her kind.
Orlando Bloom – who in middle age has finally transitioned out of his pretty boy stage into full adulthood – plays Rycroft Philostrate, a police inspector whose sympathies toward the “critch” (derogatory slang for all non-humans) have ostracized him from the many bigots on the police force. Years earlier, Philo had been a soldier stationed in Tirnanoc, and had fallen in love with Vignette, but left her believing that he’d died because he feared for her safety if she stayed with him. After learning that he’s still alive, Vignette feels betrayed and resentful.
When a series of brutal murders appear to be the work of a serial killer targeting fae and other critch, many of his fellow police officers can hardly be bothered to care. As Philo investigates, he uncovers the roots of a dark conspiracy with stakes larger than he imagined. Swirling around this are the machinations of powerful politician Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris) and his wife Piety (Indira Varma from Game of Thrones). Meanwhile, sheltered and entitled rich prig Imogen Primrose (Tamzin Merchant) finds her prejudices challenged when a wealthy satyr moves into her neighborhood, which she and her disproving social circle see as an affront to the proper order of things.
Season Verdict / Grade: B
Right off the bat, Carnival Row lays down its analogies with the current anti-immigrant political climate in the United States and the UK with a thick and heavy hand. The first episode is so unsubtle about this that it can rub many viewers the wrong way, even those who might be predisposed to agree with its message. That has been reflected in some of the negative reviews for the show.
Fortunately, subsequent episodes tone this down a bit and get on with the business of telling a story, though the trowel of message-beating does return periodically.
If you can get past that issue, the series actually does a pretty good job of crafting a credible fantasy universe. It develops a rich and detailed mythology that’s not too difficult to navigate, with reams of made-up terminology that somehow sound natural coming out of the characters’ mouths. The performances are all good, with a special shout-out to Karla Crome (who played annoying Science Teacher Rebecca on the lamentable Under the Dome) as Vignette’s spunky prostitute friend Tourmaline, easily the most fun character on the show.
The production values are very high, with elaborate costumes, production design, and visual effects. The cinematography is appealingly gloomy (though I found that it doesn’t do much with HDR), and the surround sound mix is terrific, even in 5.1. (The show was mixed in Atmos, but Amazon apparently failed to make that version available. I’m told that this will be rectified eventually.)
Amazon has enough confidence in the show that a second season has already been confirmed. It may not be the best TV series – or even the best fantasy TV series – available on streaming right now, but I’ll watch again when it comes back.