Season 1, Episodes 1-8
Your enjoyment, or lack thereof, of Amazon’s Carnival Row (premiering August 30) depends on the two main characters’ names: Rycroft Philostrate and Vignette Stonemoss. If your first instinct is to roll your eyes, then there is little else in the show to endear you. Because there is much, much more that the series asks the viewer to take seriously: fairies as refugees from a far-off war, the obstacles a faun faces when seeking to increase his social standing, or the political machinations of a city populated by these fantastical creatures. Make no mistake: Carnival Row is almost completely devoid of irony. Which is precisely why I found myself taken by it.
To be sure, the series is not without its flaws. The romance between Philostrate and Stonemoss is uninteresting, and the series screeches to a halt whenever focusing on that plot point. Other plot points depend on convoluted connections between the series’ many groups: this religion follows this figure, that political group has a spy in that organization, etc. And unlike Penny Dreadful, the series’ closest cousin, there is no vast literary canon to consult for clarity.
However, what the series does have is dignity and wonder. The world Travis Beachem and René Echevarria show to the viewer is one that was built with intricate detail in mind. Rather than simply plopping its characters in a modern day American city with few other changes, the realm of Carnival Row is one that’s been shaped from the ground up by its denizens. And what fun it is to see those denizens interact! The best parts of Carnival Row are when the characters are completing the day-to-day functions of their jobs. To see how Philostrate (nicknamed “Philo”) conducts a murder investigation in a city where magic is real is riveting. When he’s unraveling threads, interviewing potential witnesses, or attempting to understand the customs of the fair folk are the moments where his character truly comes alive, and where Orlando Bloom is most clearly having fun.
The same can be said of Stonemoss and the faun Agreus. Stonemoss’s fight for survival in a city that wholly rejects her is a compelling story, as is her relationship with fellow fairy Tourmaline (with whom she has more chemistry than Philo). A sex worker on Carnival Row, Tourmaline has carved out a decent little niche for herself in city living. And Stonemoss finds herself wanting a niche of her own. If not in the sex trade, at least somewhere she can be respected. And we have Agreus: the wealthy faun (called a puck in this series) who is attempting to form a definitive place for himself in high society. Something that the wealthy-but-struggling human Imogen Spumrose can give him.
Which is what makes the story’s dependence on Stonemoss and Philo’s romance all the more disappointing. The show is at its most compelling when leaning into its fantasy and pulp elements. Unlike the turgid Bright, Carnival Row mixes its fantasy and noir elements deftly into a world that is a delight to explore. While the first season is watchable and addictive, it is the combination of such different worlds that compels a viewer to finish it. If there are future seasons, those are the elements that could do with further exploration.