You’d think that if someone was going to name the principal characters of their Victorian-esque fae-meets-Ripper television series things like Vignette Stonemoss and Rycroft Philostrate and Absalom Breakspear and Tourmaline, they’d be in on the joke. Vignette! Philostrate! Tourmaline!! I mean, okay, sure, there’s the Dickensian aspect, but all the same, these are just objectively funny names.
Alas, Carnival Row has no interest in its own punchline. Starring Cara Delevingne as a faerie refugee from a mythical realm ravaged by war, and Orlando Bloom (his own name being a Dickens castoff) as the human detective with a terrible secret she fell in love with back when they were both starry-eyed soldiers, Amazon Prime’s new allegorical steampunk fantasy is grim, gory, and exhaustingly self-serious.
This is a shame, as both Delevingne and Bloom—hell, as everyone in the sprawling cast, which includes Jared Harris, Indira Varma, David Gyasi and Carla Krome in key roles—are putting in good work, and deserve a show equal to their efforts. But just as Carnival Row can’t seem to find a sense of humor about its inherent goofiness, its allegorical narrative struggles to rise above the banal. Faerish (the show’s term) refugees struggling to assimilate into or just survive in the increasingly hostile human city they’ve sought asylum in should be ripe for nuanced storytelling, and acutely relevant to the shameful anti-refugee moment that both the U.S. and the U.K. are currently mired in.
Should be. But where model allegorical fantasies like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teen Wolf, and The Magicians have all managed to wring genuine complexity out of the real-world issues their monstrous avatars crack open for investigation, Carnival Row approaches its narrative with all the subtlety of the hammer the first episode’s Ripper-like villain uses to bash faerish folks’ brains in. How unsubtle do I mean? Well, as Tourmaline (Krome) snipes at Philo (Bloom) in the middle of that first episode when the detective asks after the mood among the faerish in Carnival Row: “A racist with a hammer is beating us where he finds us and we don’t see too many of you lot out here giving a shit.” That unsubtle. (Ironically, this is one of the series’ few lines of dialogue delivered with any sort of punch, but it’s thanks to Krome rather than any real sense of comedy on the script’s part.)
It’s not just the faerish refugee crisis that’s unsubtle as a hammer blow, though. The callow bigotry practiced by Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose (Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant) against their wealthy new Puck/satyr neighbor, Mr. Agreus (Gyasi), is straight out of a “what an entitled racist looks like” primer, and the twist that neighborly relationship takes midway through the series is so inevitable that me even suggesting there is one can’t possibly be a spoiler. Over in the Burguish halls of power, meanwhile, the political struggles among Chancellor Breakspear (Harris) and his family and the conniving young heiress (Caroline Ford) to the opposition party’s leadership take a similarly predictable and similarly wearisome shape. The ultimate message that humanity’s capacity for cruelty is matched only by its thirst for power is surprising to no one save, perhaps, the faerie woman whose mysterious, guts-spilling murder sets off the byzantine conspiracy that frames the bulk of the first season’s plot. The Victorian/faerish set dressing is all well and good—well, it’s all dingy, grey, and gross (there absolutely is pissing out a whorehouse window, in case you were worried about realism)—but the story it serves isn’t saying anything that better fantasy stories haven’t said before.
The most distressingly banal element of Carnival Row, though, isn’t how compellingly (or not) its various storylines are developed. Rather, it’s the series’ bafflingly unevolved take on the spectrum of roles women might get to have in fantasy stories. It is 2019. #TimesUp and #MeToo and Frances McDormand’s inclusion rider are old news. Game of Thrones’ gratuitous use of nude sex workers as set dressing and women being brutalized as motivation for male characters’ emotional growth is pretty universally derided for the lazily misogynistic storytelling it was. And yet here we are in 2019, sitting down to a series that introduces itself to viewers by seeing dozens of faerish women getting shot through the skull, one by on, by a ravaging army of angry men pursuing them.
“At least this violence against women is a motivating force for Vignette, not a man,” I wrote in my notes as Delevingne dropped into the shot to strangle one of the show’s inexplicably hairless werewolves with a fae piano wire, but at less that five minutes in, I was already exhausted. And that was long before it became clear that, after xenophobia is bad and humanity is cruel and power hungry, a central point the series wants to make is faeries are very sexy and having sex with them is also very sexy, here, let’s all look, tits-on, at faerie ladies having sex in midair while their flimsy dragonfly wings work double-time to hold them and their partner aloft; it is very sexy. (As a minor corollary, the series allows later that, so long as the female partner’s tits are still front and center, watching a human screw a satyr is also sexy, even if the specific optics of that hammer blow of a pairing are meant to be read as extra transgressive.)
What’s most frustrating about all these choices is, as little as I personally care for nudity and extended sex scenes in the television I watch, Carnival Row has conjured up a world in which there are some genuinely fascinating openings for sex and nakedness to be used as a visually inventive way to transport the audience, by extending the feeling of transcendence that floating human-faerie sex is presumably meant to have. (This is especially true regarding the sex between Philo and Vignette, though to explain further would be a spoiler.)
As it is, though, the sex scenes in Carnival Row don’t feel like they’re about the characters so much as they are about lithe, young, pretty things being lithe and young and pretty for a voyeuristic, male gaze-y audience. And that’s just…frustrating.
This is not to say there aren’t things about Carnival Row to recommend it. As I mentioned above, the acting is all solid, and if you like Victorian culture/customs, you’ll dig the setting. And who knows; I hated The Boys, but it has still ended up the highest rated superhero series on IMDb, so everyone’s mileage on this one absolutely will vary.
If you do give this series a chance, though, one final note: Beyond all of the stale narrative decisions discussed above, this show’s sound mixing is often so murky that it’s literally impossible to hear unless your volume is turned up 300% louder than you’d normally have it. So when the first season finally does drop, flip those subtitles on, baby!
The first season of Carnival Row hits Amazon Prime on Friday, August 30th. It has already been renewed for Season Two.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.