“Carnival Row,” a series set in an invented Victorian fantasy world populated by both humans as well as races of beings derived from mythology, premiered on Amazon Prime Aug. 30.
The eight-episode drama stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. The setting may look like late 19th century London, but it’s not: It’s the Burgue, capitol of the Republic of the Burgue. Like London in the late 19th century, the Burgue has been the epicenter of human culture and military power for centuries … but its power is waning.
In the series debut, viewers are fed a lot of information. In addition to abbreviated history and geography lessons, scenes hinting at backroom political intrigue and escalating social unrest are sandwiched between character backstories. It’s a tense, bewildering muddle, blending the Victorian era police procedural of “Ripper Street” with the urban fantasy elements of “Grimm.” In order to capture the attention of “Game of Thrones” viewers, series developers also threw in just the right amount of cynical misanthropes indulging in quick, graphic sex.
In case no one else mentions it, “Carnival Row” is full of mature content. In addition to sexual situations, the viewer can expect to see more than a few disemboweled murder victims.
Is the series more satisfying than the relationships it follows?
The premise is fascinating. For centuries, the Fae — a term used to describe all the non-human races — were believed to be figures of fable. Their homeland was thought to be mere legend. Unfortunately, some unnamed Christopher Columbus apparently braved the Great Main, an ocean separating two continents, and discovered Tirnanoc. Smelling untold riches and resources to be exploited, the empires of man sent armies to fight for control of the territories.
In terms of technology, the human empires seem to fall somewhere in between the Crimean War and World War I. The series opens seven years after the Republic of the Burgue lost both the war and, presumably, all its claims to Tirnanoc to an alliance of countries known as the Pact. The Pact controls Tirnanoc with an iron fist, subjugating what remains of the Faeries.
Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne), a refugee Faerie, manages to escape. She and her kin — along with Centaurs, Fauns, the Trow and Kobolds — seek safe haven in the Burgue. However, the asylum-seekers are considered unwanted guests by a very vocal faction of the populace. Xenophobes proclaim them job-stealers, reprobates, miscreants and burdens upon society.
I think you can see “Carnival Row” is trying to draw some parallels to contemporary social issues.
Vignette arrives in the Burgue believing Rycroft Philostrate (Bloom) died in the war. She soon learns otherwise. “Kingdoms of the Moon,” the third episode, is an extended flashback sequence that delves into their shared romance while depicting the final days of the war for Tirnanoc. The episode helps viewers struggling to make sense of the fantasy world’s chronology.
As the series unfolds, other storylines emerge. One involves Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), his wife Piety (Indira Varma), and their son Jonah (Arty Froushan). Their Shakespearian drama provides “Carnival Row” with a captivating side spectacle. Meanwhile, Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant), trying to recoup some of her family’s lost fortune, courts the wealthy Agreus Astrayon (David Gyasi), a wealthy Puck shunned by Burgue high society for his appearance and origin in a subversive take on the novel of manners.
All of that may sound convoluted and exasperating — and it is, to some degree. There’s no doubt that “Carnival Row” employs a thorny, byzantine plot with overlapping storylines populated by bleak, unhappy individuals. The series requires an investment of time: Watching one or two episodes isn’t enough to grasp the intricacies of the milieu or the depth of the individual characters.
The ambitious world-building at work in “Carnival Row” is mesmerizing. The series, however, falters in its obsession with trying to shock viewers. One shot revealing a vividly grisly murder is unnecessarily underscored with a police officer vomiting in the street; another is accompanied by a child losing control of his bladder in a darkened corridor. It’s as if the director is imploring the audience to respond with corresponding revulsion.
If you can put aside the shock-for-shock’s-sake mentality of “Carnival Row,” the series boasts high-quality production values, a sleek blend of Victorian imagery and edgy fantasy tropes, complex plots and cliff-hanging drama and solid performances from a talented cast.
A number of directors share the task of bringing the series to Amazon. Thor Freudenthal directed the first two episodes. Anna Foerster directed the third. Freudenthal and Foerster co-directed the fourth episode. From there, Andy Goddard and Jon Amiel finished the season, each taking two episodes. The series was created by René Echevarria and Travis Beacham. Amazon has renewed “Carnival Row” for a second season.
“Carnival Row” may not be the replacement “Games of Thrones” everyone is desperately seeking, but if you give it a chance, it may yet enchant you.