Carnival Row Review

Arguably Amazon’s first big-budget TV show Carnival Row was streamed on devices a couple of months ago, but in all honesty it never quite interested me. However, after falling off the Outlander bandwagon, my girlfriend and I were on the search for another show to watch together and Orlando Bloom seemed enough at that time to draw us in.

Watching Carnival Row was like being in an unstable relationship. One minute I was enjoying it (Cara Delevingne’s Irish accent is surprisingly O.K) and the next I’m hating it (why does Orlando Bloom feel the need to smoulder and squint his way through every line). Its world and lore are fascinating and far more willing to allow the viewer to fill in the blanks than I had imagined it would. Yet like many high concept shows, whether it be through budgeting or bad writing, it decides to focus on comparatively mundane subjects.

After a war in their homeland between man and the ominous “Pact”, the Fae (fairy-like beings) and other fantasy creature are forced to immigrate to The Burg – a version of 18-19th century London. With allegorical racism between the “critch” and man, tensions rise as a series of murders take place in the ghetto-esque Carnival Row.

There was an immediate enjoyability about Carnival Row, with its detective styled story, big-budget settings, and obvious sense of character. In the first few episodes, the Carnival Row is alive and bustling with different types of beings, and you are thrown into this old world in a unsettled state. Characters are hammed up, with the aforementioned smoulders and squints, eerie telling’s of prophesies, and off-hand reminiscing to the times of old. It is cheesy, but in a way that they know they are in a giant fantasy show – Bloom’s character is named Rycroft Philostrate, which about sums that point up. I found the world interesting, the main characters intriguing, and loved the detective elements.

Orlando Bloom swaggers his way through almost every scene, but by far has the most interesting development and story. For the most part I enjoyed his hard man act and ached to find out more of his backstory. Cara Delevingne as Vignette warmed on me as I discovered more of her and Philo’s (Bloom) history. At times her performance didn’t have the same consistency as Bloom’s, but considering I am not a big fan of hers I didn’t mind.

Around half-way through the eight-episode run, the show’s story meanders from the main plot, and gives way to a host of secondary characters. This takes the spotlight for a lot of the second half to the point that the finale consisted of more secondary storylines than it did of the murder-mystery. Even Vignette’s story fades away, as if they ran out of idea a couple of episodes short of the finale. The stories that accompany these characters are also an issue. Politics, tutors and class wars. While some have their merits to a degree, their unwillingness to in anyway relate to the primary plot (at this point), feels as though I am watching different shows. It is also a waste to have an expansive and fantastical world, and then focus on the everyday mundanities. The focus on the secondary characters and stories is a weak attempt at the groundwork for future seasons. While I have no objection to planting the seeds for future season, doing so at the detriment of the main story caused, in my mind, a lacklustre finale, with too much focus on characters I had no love for.

Carnival Row had the potential to be a surprise hit for me. I loved the fantasy setting and the first season still left more to be desired of its past. It genuinely felt like a lived in a real world for the most part. Yet its lack of focus in its storytelling, led to a muddied second half with too many characters that had no real bearing on the primary story. While I still have some intrigue to the state of The Burg following the events of the first season, my eagerness to come back is soured by lazy storytelling and an assumption I will return to see storylines conclude.

Published by Aaron Bayne

I’m a film and video games journalist based in Scotland. I write stuff about them on my website, talk about them on my podcasts and film videos about them for BBC The Social.

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