Carnival Row

For a long time, I was all in on Netflix originals. I still am, I guess. I try to give most of what they put out a try and have watched or intend to watch most of their movie output. While I am still in on a bunch of Netflix shows that have not yet been cancelled, lately I have found myself favoring Amazon Prime’s approach to original content.

Netflix’s strategy, though it may be starting to change, seems to have been to throw money at any and every project it can get its hands on. This led to a lot of weird interesting stuff, as well as simply bad stuff. I don’t think any one else would have given us something like American Vandal, for example. Amazon Prime has always felt more curated than Netflix. They are going for a specific tone and quality, like a network trying to create an identity. Even if Amazon’s output has been more consistent, I don’t think Amazon’s approach has resulted in appreciable better content.

That said, over the last year or so I have come to a greater appreciation of Amazon Prime’s output, and this year they have released several shows that reveal their target consumer appears to be me specifically. The adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens was delightful. I wound up really enjoying The Boys and the unfortunately cancelled The Tick. John Krasinski sells Jack Ryan despite the shows dodgy politics. There is more Homecoming on the way at some point. And while its second season was dreadful, I have hopes that Goliath can right the ship.

That brings us to Amazon Prime’s latest release targeted to my sensibilities and actual subject of this post: Carnival Row.

The reviews I’ve read of Carnival Row have been middling at best, and I can’t really disagree with most of the reasoning within those reviews. (I saw most, calling it out for not being the next Game of Thrones is nonsense.) Carnival Row is a strange beast, a Victorian-ish fantasy mystery show. I don’t know that Carnival Row is actually any good; that doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that I loved watching it.

Carnival Row combines many elements that I enjoy individually. It is structured like a murder mystery, which I love. The setting is a kind of Victorian-ish steampunk fantasy world, another thing I greatly enjoy. Honestly, I am kind of a sucker for Victorian romances, which a major subplot of this show apes quite effectively. Nearly all the building blocks of this show are precisely calibrated for me to enjoy, so long as they executed halfway well at all.

The story is a little more uneven than the setting, but it mostly works. The mystery isn’t quite there because the most obvious answer after the initial couple of episodes turns out to be the culprit. I kept expecting a twist, but it was more waiting to learn the why rather than the who and there is no real way to speculate on that. Early on the show sets up a lot of threads that appear to be unrelated. Cara Delevingne plays Vignette Stonemoss (this show has top tier names), a fae refugee who shows up in the Burgue and finds out her supposedly dead lover is still alive. That lover is Orlando Bloom’s Rycroft Philostrate (told you about the names). Philo is a detective who is investigating a serial killer who has been killing fae in the slums. The two of them struggle to deal with their reunion as Vignette tries to get used to living as a refugee in the racist Burgue. Also involved are Imogen and Ezra Spurnrose, a pair of impoverished nobles trying to hold on to their lifestyle. They meet up with a rich faun, Agreas Astrayon, who is trying to make inroads amongst the upper class. Finally, there are the Breakspears, the prime minister and his family as they deal with some family problems. While Philo and Vignette are connected, the rest of them do not appear to be at first. The only thing truly connecting them are the setting.

Carnival Row is driven by an obvious and effective racism metaphor that is wrapped up in a solid exploration of colonialism. The fae and other related fantasy races are called “critch” by the people of the Burgue and treated like second class citizens. The fae in the Burgue are refugees from Tirnanoc, the site of a war between two colonialist powers that the Burgue lost. When they withdrew they left the fae that had supported them on their own. With their homeland destroyed, many had no choice but to flee to the Burgue. It creates a toxic stew on the titular Carnival Row, where the fae refugees do what work they can, largely as servant or sex workers, and the Burgue citizen resent them as a drain on the city, especially as the city’s power fades.

Philo and Vignette are co-protagonists, and they give two different and sympathetic points of view. Vignette has trouble dealing with the powerlessness and unfairness of the situation. She goes from working as a servant, with the Spurnroses, to realizing she has no recourse when the master of the house tries to force himself on her. Then she works with a criminal group, which is dangerous because they have to maintain secrecy to keep ‘safe.’ Meanwhile, Philo has a position as a constable, but he has trouble with his fellow cops because he isn’t racist. She gets to see things from the fae side; he sees it from the human. The clarity of its messaging, for the most part, makes up for its simplicity.

The show isn’t exactly fast paced, but it keeps the action coming at a steady clip. It is best when it is the most focused. The first few episodes are the weakest because it is not clear how all the characters relate to each other or how their stories are in any way connected. Some of those connections are not apparent until very late in the show. But strong performances all around and a generally entertaining setting and concept make for a strong show.

The Boys

I guess superhero TV shows are my niche. There are a lot of them these days; everyone is in on it. You’ve got DC and Marvel shows all over the place, Netflix is staying in the game with Umbrella Academy, and Hulu having Marvel’s Runaways. Like everyone else, Amazon has made its forays into the genre, first with the recently cancelled The Tick, and now with its adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, from Dynamite Comics.

I’ll admit straight up that I am not a fan of The Boys comic. I will also admit I haven’t read a lot of it. I have generally bounced pretty hard off of Garth Ennis’s work and I have never really been interested in forcing myself to acquire a taste for it. He combines some genuinely good observations about human nature with a somewhat cheeky revelry in the most absolute profane imagery or ideas imaginable; I usually end up put off by how gross stuff can get. His approach to superheroes seemed to me to be an extended take on the old “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” concept. I know people really like his work with The Punisher, but I’ve never really cared for The Punisher in general. I’ve also heard good things about Hitman, but DC hasn’t made that easy to get a hold of these days (If I missed a collection or something, let me know!). What I read of The Boys didn’t do anything for me and I never really felt any need to revisit it.

So I was not exactly excited for The Boys at Amazon. Still, I gave it a shot and I am glad I did. The Boys still displays plenty of the meanness and profanity that turned me off on the comic, but enough has been reimagined here to make it a different story and, in my opinion, a much better story. The bones of the plot remains the same; Hughie’s fiancé is killed by a drugged out superhero in a completely avoidable accident. This leads to Hughie being recruited by Billy Butcher into The Boys, a former CIA team that polices superheroes. In the show, the team is officially no more, but it is unofficially recreated to allow Butcher to seek revenge against the Superman analogue Homelander and against all superheroes in general.

One central level of the satire of The Boys is superheroes as corporate celebrities. It is a direct shot at Marvel and Disney with the MCU. A bold shot from a giant corporation like Amazon, but there is still some truth in it. Most of the “superheroes” operate within this; they are some corporatized failure of the idea of being a hero. It is fine, but nothing particularly new or eye-opening. The same goes for most of The Boys’ story. It is not a familiar tale, but it isn’t a surprising one. Butcher is clearly somewhat unhinged, and the other members are in the group for their own reasons. The show does a good enough job showing how amoral the “heroes” are that most of the awful things that the Boys do feel at least somewhat justified.

The part of the show that worked for me was the relationship between Hughie and Starlight. Mostly it was the character arc of Starlight. It starts off so bad, but by the middle portion of the season has easily become the highlight. Starlight is a young superheroine from Iowa. She had been managed by her mother like a stage mom with a pageant girl. Somehow she had caught the eye of the Vought Corporation and the Seven, the Justice League analogue superhero team. She is called up to replace a departed member. The first thing that happens when she arrives at headquarters is that The Deep, an Aquaman analogue, coerces her into a sexual act. It is a gross way to start things out, but of a piece with the rest of the show. Luckily, things look up from there.

Like Hughie with his girlfriend, Starlight has had her innocence violently shattered. She is the only superhero on the show who is shown to be trying to do good, to actually be a superhero. The other heroes, though, treat her like everyone else, like she is below them and not worth their time. Starlight, with some advice from Hughie, refuses to let that break her. She goes back determined to be a hero. I understand if the start of her story is enough to put someone off; large parts of The Boys seems to exist just to dare the viewer to stop watching. Especially because The Deep goes on to be shown as more of a goof than actually awful like some of his contemporaries. I, however, found sticking with Starlight’s story very rewarding. Because she goes from this sheltered, naive and unsure person to a much stronger one. That journey would be possible without the sexual assault, but that is not the story told. She not only reevaluates her career as a hero, but she also reexamines all aspects of her life, like her relationship with her mother and her religion. For me, it all worked. It also works in tandem with Hughie’s story.

Starlight seems much more focused that Hughie; he doesn’t really have anything to hold on to, personally, after the loss of his girlfriend. So he is more easily swayed by Butcher’s excesses and falls more easily into that quest for revenge.

The show truly won me over near the end, when some characters are forced to make a moral choice, and the show, at least for the moment, rejects the nihilism that had always threatened to run away with the show.

So, The Boys is a show for people who want a cynical look at superheroes that eventually reveals itself to have a sincere heart. I was pleasantly surprised by this show and I’ll be back for season 2.