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.