Carnival Row: Season 1 – Review

Carnival Row premieres August 30th on Amazon Prime Video.

By Chris Flanagan

What if I told you, there was a show that featured humans, fairies and strange hybrid creatures that was attempting to be a dark reflection on our current society’s outlook towards race, equality and justice?

Would that be something you’d be interested in?

If so, Carnival Row looks to be the answer. Amazon Studios’ latest original programming focuses on a fantasy Victorian world where humans, as a result of war, are forced to co-exist in a society populated by magical creatures who are both wonderful and nefarious as they are forced to search for their own methods of survival. Carnival Row’s story features Philo, a human detective, who is put on a series of murders involving magical creatures that are at the hands of something more dark and sinister than he has ever seen. His former lover, Vignette, is a fairy who’s made a living smuggling other fairies off her homeland in order to avoid persecution and murder at the hands of The Pact, the faction that won the previously mentioned war. As fate would have it, Vignette and Philo’s path quickly converge as they are not only reacquainted with one another but also forced to work together in order to bring a stop to the senseless murders which all point to a larger threat over all in existence.

The dilemma I faced while watching Carnival Row was the quick realization that the show isn’t very good. With a discerning eye, you can easily see that Carnival Row is not perfect. Each character, all baring ridiculous names which had me become increasingly impressed each time someone said another’s name without laughing, never truly becomes their own entity within the story. Outside of the Vignette and Philo, everyone else seems to be playing an impersonation of an impersonation of a character on a PBS Victorian drama. Even Orlando Bloom (Philo) struggles with this at times who sometimes rests on whispering and a brooding look instead of letting the material carry the load. Cara Delevigne is truly giving her best effort, but seems as if she’s in a completely different show when sharing scenes with others. To both of the lead’s credit, they are continually letdown by the dialogue, which is cringe-worthy and often successfully detracts rather than enhances the scene.

Here’s something even more absurd – Despite its many flaws, Carnival Row is just crazy enough that it works…kinda.

The previously mentioned points are all ones that should give you pause when deciding to invest in a show or not, however, in the case of Carnival Row they are not complete deterrents in order to still enjoy it. While it does succumb to the weight of its flaws in many areas, the show is still able to delve into many different facets of fantasy lore involving the various magical entities that populate its world that actually become the most intriguing and entertaining aspects of the entire experience. The racially motivated war that preceded the current world we explore, the political movements based on its fallout, the immigrant-like state that the creatures are forced to navigate their way through are all fascinating avenues for the story to explore, which it often does, while still hinting at even more yet untold.

Carnival Row falters in many areas where others who came before it have succeeded. Many areas of the story, dialogue, and cast could be improved, and yet, it was still somewhat entertaining thanks to the interesting history contained within its world. As the season unfolds, much is revealed involving the various species and races that populate it but its true intrigue lies within the history that is merely mentioned in casual conversation between characters which leaves the audience to piece together the remaining pieces. I enjoyed that lack of plot hand-holding, however, it still came at a cost because if it were not for that detail I would not have continued the show. You have nothing to lose by at least watching the first two episodes and from there you can make your own judgment whether or not to continue.

I give Carnival Row a C-.